Who Owns Your Data?

Mozilla’s dystopian, Black Mirror-like installation forces users to confront their complex relationship with data, privacy, and identity.

By: Tom Atkinson

Advances in technology in the last few years have meant most of us are now dependent on digital services and Internet-connected devices. And in the context of our hectic lives, most of us never stop to think about what this constant connectivity and “always on” lifestyle means for our privacy.

The mere act of clicking “accept” when faced with a dauntingly long list of T&Cs for a new device, service or app signs us up for a multitude of sins. Let’s be honest, it’s a long-standing joke that people could put pretty much anything in there and we’d just agree. But the joke, it seems, is on us as we increasingly surrender control of our personal information, without really knowing what that entails down the line.

“I don’t have anything to hide, but I don’t have anything I want to show you either.” The Glass Room Exhibition Postcard

Mozilla & the Tactical Technology Collective have teamed up to lift the lid on some of the unexpected and unwelcome practices digital service providers use to extract value from our data. To engage the public in this debate they set up The Glass Room, an international, open Pop-Up Space where visitors are encouraged to learn more about the current situation, their rights, and responsibilities when living their digital lives.

The message that comes through is that we all need to regain some agency over our digital selves, and to try to act independently in a world where we are increasingly and indiscriminately being monitored — and where our data is constantly monetised in return for paid and free services.

“As a not-for-profit, Mozilla invests in creative ways to make sure people are informed and ready to protect themselves online. With fake news and misinformation, the normalisation of surveillance, and so-called “free” services from powerful tech companies, The Glass Room opens your eyes to the invisible imbalance of power and the irony of referring to our most intimate data as ‘personal’.” Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, Mozilla’s Chief Marketing Officer

The Glass Room previously wowed visitors in New York in 2016 and this year came to London for three weeks. And if the packed house I saw when I visited earlier this month is anything to go by, it’s also been a hit on this side of the pond.

“The response from Londoners has been extremely positive. In just three weeks, around 20,000 people saw the exhibit and hundreds of thousands more continue to experience it online through virtual reality.” Mozilla

The experience offered is hard to explain, the space is painted all white like a modern gallery and the floor is dotted with white plinths but instead of dusty bronze sculptures or fancy ceramic pots, the plinths boast iPads and headphones or strange looking interactive electronic devices, screens flickering with data or video feeds.

The closest thing The Glass Room resembles is an art exhibit but there is no reverent hush here, some people are huddled around the plinths debating loudly and animatedly while fiddling with their mobile phones while some solitary people stand closed off from the room in headphones intently watching video on iPads. One exhibit by @sam_levigne scanned your brainwaves while you followed a series of prompts and images that stimulated specific thoughts and emotions, then scanned your mind while you thought about shopping, exploring how we might integrate our thoughts digitally into services in the future and how that might work while subtly suggesting that you would have to surrender all that intimate brainwave data to an organisation, without questioning what it might do with it. We all assume the best in our data transactions but this is not a wise move. I particularly like the prompt that asked you to consider your own death for fifteen seconds while showing a school corridor!

Many of the exhibits were playful and drew you in with an interactive element, a novel premise or playful comment on our digital behaviour, such as the then let you draw your own conclusions about the healthiness or otherwise of that behaviour. Others such as the printed records of the 4.6 million passwords stolen from LinkedIn in 2012 encouraged you to flick through to see if your password was in there, a reminder that large digital organisations do not have a good record of keeping our private data safe. I strongly recommend you check out The Glass Room VR experience to look more closely at the innovative exhibits on display.

“The Glass Room is more than just a pop-up store — it’s part of a broader campaign to educate the public about their relationship with the internet. Billions of people depend on an open and accessible internet for knowledge, livelihood, self-expression, and even love. This is why Mozilla is investing in exhibits like The Glass Room, to grow a movement to make the Internet healthier.” Mozilla

The UK Glass Room was located on the bustling Charring Cross Road — just on the edge of Soho — so the streets were teeming with people. Still, I was surprised by just how many of them stopped to through the tall glass windows and then came in. I was even more surprised, though, to see how long they stayed.

The Glass Room did not only want to help you grasp the implications of your online actions and digital lifestyle, several of the iPad exhibits showed videos and infographics that lifted the lid on the commercial companies behind some of the services we use daily and presented some shocking facts about the business models behind these services. The videos were simple, well designed and were often just a contextualised corporate video from the companies themselves explaining what they do and how they monetize it.

I consider myself pretty tech savvy and aware of the ways companies like Google and Facebook make their money but plugging into the array of exhibits at The Glass Room showed me just how wrong I was. I came away feeling that we should all make an effort to understand the new digital world we inhabit and take responsibility for our engagement with large digital companies whenever we can, otherwise we risk being seriously exploited in ways we don’t even imagine.

The most shocking example of how we have all blindly walked into a digital trap was the company behind the London Transport Oyster Card and Contactless Payment system. Convenient it may be, but those responsible for managing it — The Cubic Corporation — are in fact a huge American company specialising in realistic combat training systems, secure communications for specialised support services for military and security forces, networked command, control, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities for defence, intelligence and commercial security missions. Notice the word ‘commercial’. It makes you wonder how in the world the UK government — without consulting the public, signed away the data of millions of London transport users, which can then be used by this company to enhance their other — less civilian-focused services too.

Another shocker was the company IrisGuard, who have partnered with the UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) to help monitor and distribute aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan. They have so far scanned 2.3 million refugees and registered them on their biometric database. The refugees have no choice if they want to receive shelter and aid after fleeing a war zone and IrisGuard could use that personal data for, well we don’t know. More worrying still is that the advisory board members for this private company include the founder, chairman and CEO of a global bank; the former Head of MI6 in the UK and the former Homeland Security Advisor to George W. Bush. This is powerful personal data being gathered under the guise of a humanitarian cause with big money involved and it is probably safe to bet that the expected payoff is not just a warm tingly feeling… WTF!?!

It could be argued that we all agree to these conditions when signing up to various services so — to quote the current U.S. President — “we knew what we were signing up for” but in the two previous cases that simply is not true, as the people in question had very little choice, and the information certainly wasn’t volunteered. Although we do all sign up to services and willingly give away our data with the abstract understanding that these companies will make money from it somehow, just how far they go, and where our data eventually ends up, is something few of us actually grasp.

A case in point is DNA testing company 23andMe, who my wife and I have used to find out a bit about our ancestry. Well, two years ago they signed a deal with drugs giant Pfizer to allow them access to all our DNA records for use in drug development, very profitable drug development. Buried deep in the T&Cs of 23andMe must have been a clause allowing them to sell our DNA data, a clause I didn’t read through laziness and unwillingness to trawl through the small print so yes it is my fault, but does that make it right? We have all done this but would it even be possible for me to be totally vigilant and read every letter of all the T&Cs I might sign up to? And should I be excluded from all these useful services because I would like to not quite sign my entire life and associated rights away to the highest bidder?

To put things in some context, should we take the time to read all the Privacy Policies we are required to agree to in a year, Time Magazine has reported we would lose 76 work days per year, not counting the T&Cs of the ISPs we all need to use in order to function in 21st century society. Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect any working human to fully take charge of and responsibility for their online activities and data if they are required to do this.

“There’s so little time in people’s daily lives to consider the consequences of their online decisions. The Glass Room is an engaging way for people to take an hour to think about what’s going on with technology and society and decide for themselves how they want to live their online lives.” Mozilla

The important messages here are firstly that we are all pretty ignorant of how our data is being used but more importantly that we have some power to make different choices that keep us safer online and limit the ways in which companies exploit our data. We also need to truly understand the value of our data, both to us and to others who would monetize it without our knowledge.

The Glass Room tackled all these issues in a friendly and educational way that had the public pouring through the doors and effectively highlighted the gaps in our collective knowledge. It was shocking but inspired me to pay more attention when I give away my data in return for services and content and to reassess how I evaluate the value of my data.

“We are always looking for opportunities to take our message of a free and open internet to new places. Right now, we encourage people to visit The Glass Room in virtual reality, and to try out the eight-day Data Detox Kit, helping you to take back some control over your digital self.” Mozilla

Some reactions from the public

During the exhibition, visitors were encouraged to leave their feedback by answering some questions. Here are a few of our favourites:

After visiting the Glass Room I felt:

– “Watched”

– “Empowered”

– “That what I feared about the net was true”

– “Scared and fascinated”

– “It’s a confirmation of everything I feared and a reminder to not be complacent”

– “Excellent! I was waiting for this project”

After visiting the Glass Room I want to:

– “Stop stalking my ex-boyfriend”

– “Find more ways of protecting me, my friends and family/ Enlighten other but I still want a social life”

– “Think about my digital footprint”

– “Delete all my apps but I need them”

– “Be free”

– “Start paying for an email service so I don’t use Gmail”

My favourite thing about the Glass Room:

– “It’s free, accessible, intelligent and interactive”

– “Someone cares about my privacy concerns and is taking the effort to explain it to me”

– “It’s an accessible way to get non-techy people thinking”

– “It makes complex content playful and accessible”

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