Is privacy dead in the data economy era? It may not be too late to reclaim it

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05 April 2022

In the age of the data economy, every interaction with your device can be monetized: and the tech giants are doing what they can to see it paying off. So if you feel like your devices are listening to everything, including your thoughts, you're not entirely paranoid. Maria Terzi and her company Malloc decided to step in and do something about it, as she demonstrated on last year's Reflect.

We've invited Maria to speak right after her company made waves as the first Cypriot company to be backed by Y Combinator. Maria and her two (female) co-founders created Malloc with a mission to understand what is happening on our devices and to give us a fighting chance to claim back control over our own data.

"Anything you do on the internet, any interaction you have with your smart devices generates data. And all these data are used to build an online profile of you with your interests and opinions," Maria explained. "It is known if you're pregnant or not, if you're divorced or not. Online companies then try to use this data to predict things about you."

Maria's Reflect talk immediately alerted us to the harsh reality that big brother(s) sees everything, even the songs we listen to, the frequency of changing our profile pictures, and the time spent reading an article. No wonder: today, a vast majority of companies use data to boost their sales, and many don't bother with ethical boundaries. Remember that leak in 2016 that uncovered audio recordings from Google Home? Maria notes that no one activated those. 

"You may tell me: hey Maria, I don't care about my privacy. I don't have anything to hide, and I actually like it. The thing is that I also like it when Spotify recommends me a new song and Netflix suggests a movie. The danger is when the data falls into the hands of companies that are not so kind."

That's not a theoretical threat: think Clearview (scraping the internet for facial photos and training a machine learning model to train people) and Cambridge Analytica (using Facebook quizzes to collect data and then changing opinions and affecting political views). 

Spying on the spies

Tech companies aggressively aggregating data can have some shady consequences - which is pretty much a given with spyware. Besides these apps that take your pictures without permission or steal your texts, you could also get in trouble when someone hacks a legit app, you click on something you shouldn't, and the damage is done. 

"This is what we try to do at Malloc, what we try to monitor and prevent anyone from recording or transmitting data from your device without you knowing. We use a lot of technologies to achieve that. Our most distinct characteristic is that we run on the user's device. We do real-time detection and prevention by inspecting the behavior of the applications running on your phone, and we use an approach called federated learning. That allows you to work on a device yet benefit from the knowledge produced on any device," Maria explains. 

The limitations of online privacy

The institutions If you're in the European Union, you may be relying on GDPR to protect you. According to Maria, it is good legislation, but its application isn't. Anonymized data may be a must, but history has proven that you can identify and target a specific person if you combine those with publicly available information. And as for cookies, terms and conditions, giving access to your photos or other information - it doesn't take long to give up on reading and personalizing those. 

"So the question is: is privacy dead, and can we do anything about it? If we really want to preserve it, we need to follow a principle called differential privacy. It's a statement that says you should be able to understand data and learn from it, but without watching the data," Maria outlines. Similar to sniffing dogs at the airport: they'll find what they are looking for, but they can't see the content of your suitcase. 

"It's too late to prevent the data economy from developing in the first place. Actually, we don't even want to - there are so many benefits of combining machine learning with data and getting insights. However, it's not too late to reclaim our privacy. Now it's up to the companies to spend the extra money and get the new technologies."

Watch Maria's entire talk and Q&A here:


Dr. Maria Terzi is the CEO and Co-Founder of Malloc - an AI startup focused on privacy and data security. She holds a Ph.D. in machine learning and recommender systems from the University of Lancaster. Maria has previously worked at Google, the KIOS Research and Innovation Center of Excellence, and the University of Cyprus, among others. Maria has won two Google hackathons and is the organizing team of hack{cyprus} contributing to the evolution of the technological ecosystem in Cyprus.

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