The price of privacyRSS icon

Written by Kevin Okell on Monday 21 August 2017

Originally published in GDPR:Report.

In 1988 Blaupunkt launched the world’s first commercial SatNav system for cars – the Travel Pilot. It was pretty basic with a green screen vector-graphic display in a chunky box that sat on your dashboard and connected to a separate disk drive which held the maps. If you wanted to own this new technological marvel you’d have had to stump up around £2,000.

These days Google Maps makes the Travel Pilot look like a child’s toy. Full colour graphics show you the detailed layout of any city in the world, you can pick an individual building as your destination and Maps will create you a turn-by-turn route that takes account of speed limits, road restrictions and even traffic levels. If you need to get out and walk, it has that covered too with detailed instructions to guide you to your destination and you can even take a look at what the street looks like from ground level. For pretty much anywhere in the world you’d want to go to.

The cost of this huge step change in technological capability is £0. Not a penny. So what happened? We all know that early versions of any new technology are expensive and that successive generations get steadily cheaper. Over the last 20 years the costs of various electronic goods have fallen by between 50 and 80 per cent as the economics of mass market production kick in. But how on earth can the cost fall to zero?!

In truth what has really happened is that the currency of the transaction has changed from money to personal data. The Google Maps business model (along with thousands more mobile Apps) is to provide valuable free functionality to users in return for the right to harvest data about them which can then be used to make money in other ways, typically by selling targeted advertising. Today’s teenagers have grown up with this implicit understanding that they get tons of great features in return for sharing their personal data and few of them bother to read the permissions they agree to when downloading a new App.

However, this new economy now appears to be under serious threat from well-meaning privacy activists in the shape of GDPR. My reading of clauses 43 and 50 of the GDPR regulations is that it will no longer be lawful to use an individual’s data for anything other than the service they subscribed for – no matter how many permission boxes you put in front of them. The EU has been gunning for Google for some time with a series of rulings against them so this assault shouldn’t come as a surprise but I do wonder if the bureaucrats have thought through where this is likely to lead.

If we apply the kinds of cost efficiency improvements I mentioned above, today’s SatNav devices should probably be costing upwards of £500. In reality you can actually buy a dedicated SatNav device for less than £100 or you can now rent the same service on your phone from TomTom or Garmin for around £20 a year. None of these options is actually as powerful as Google Maps but these figures give some indication of the level of costs we’ll need to get used to if the EU really insists that our privacy must be paid for.

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