Q&A: TechTown Detroit’s Gerry Roston on Digital Data and Privacy

With the rise of home technologies and social media, what information is being gathered about you?

For the last couple months, digital data collection has been making national headlines almost daily. From the Amazon Echo’s random laughter to the Cambridge Analytica scandal that caught Facebook users off guard, the same questions continue to come up: How and what information is being gathered about me, and who’s using it for what purpose?

From smart home devices to social media accounts, there are countless ways our data is being collected and used every day. Hour Detroit spoke with the Executive in Residence at TechTown Detroit, Gerry Rosten, to find out what data mining is and how we can protect our information.

Hour Detroit: What are the drawbacks of having a smart device in your house?

Gerry Rosten: I think the issue is that these companies are building up profiles of who we are. They use that; that’s how they make money. For a company like Google, we are not their customer; we are their product. Part of the problem is that there’s really no limitation with what they can do with the information that they learn about us. Now a lot of what they sell it for is for advertising [because] advertising is becoming theoretically more personalized and targeted but it’s also becoming more ubiquitous. They’re getting so much stuff of value from you —; all of your likes, dislikes, what they hear, so there’s the privacy concern.

Is deleting your Facebook really doing anything to protect your data?

Rosten: The short answer is no. The longer is [if] you delete your data, the amount of new data they get about you will be diminished. Facebook uses these things called tracking cookies to follow what you do online even if you’re not on the Facebook site. And if you delete your Facebook account, my guess is they can probably still gather data because even though you’ve deleted your account they still know who you are.  In terms of trying to protect your data, people always poke fun at me, but I use Firefox as my primary browser and I have three plugins designed specifically to block ads and cookies and things like that.

How can data collection be regulated?

Rosten: I think the first step is awareness — just letting people know what’s being acquired when and where. I think that if most people knew what Facebook was gathering from them on their phones they would be horrified. If you keep your GPS on, I’m willing to suspect that Facebook’s tracking your movements. So, I would say the first step would be disclosure. The second step is allowing people to delete information from that record because if you think about it, these companies are holding information about you which you probably feel is yours but give you no ability to control it.

So, this is a disclosure issue?

Rosten: Becoming a good computer programmer takes a lot of hard work, and if you are in undergraduate school studying computer science, there is an awful lot of material you have to learn in those four years to be good and confident. … The area where we’re falling down, especially in today’s world, [is] the people developing these systems have to have an understanding of what they mean. They need to be able to say to their manager this is not morally correct but there’s so much that they would have to learn to become confident in their primary field that they’re not taking the humanities courses or the ethics courses or things like that to help them understand not how to do it but why they should do it and we need to get back to that.

Are we willing to deal with this just for ease-of-use?

Rosten: That’s exactly what it is. Be aware and actively make choices. If you use Firefox or Chrome, you have the ability to install plugins which will help with privacy. I installed a new plugin recently called Cookie AutoDelete. With Cookie AutoDelete, as soon as I navigate away from a page, any cookies that I created go away. Now, most of the time that’s desirable behavior. … The reason you might not want to delete cookies is if you’re using your browser, let’s say you [went] to Amazon, you go back to Amazon and you don’t have to log-in again, it’s because those cookies are still there. How much do I want to leave behind versus how much convenience do I want?