While some argue that consumers can use technological "self-help” actions to empower themselves against misuse of their data, the reality is that such tools are unlikely to make a significant difference in actually strengthening consumer power over their data. While a number of companies offer technological tools to supposedly stop tracking by advertisers or increase the anonymity of users online, they largely fail in the face of determined tracking of users by online companies. Julia Angwin details a year-long quest to evade online trackers in her book Dragnet Nation and after testing many of the best of the technological tools available (with the tech support available to a top reporter at the Wall Street Journal), her conclusion was that it was largely a hopeless enterprise.[i]
Other analyst like Cukier and Mayer-Schönberger agree: “In the era of big data, the three core strategies long used to ensure privacy—individual notice and consent, opting out, and anonymization—have lost much of their effectiveness.”[ii] Given the amount of personal data already out there, even anonymous users are reidentified relatively easily by comparing the language or stray information posted under any pseudonym to information already known about individual consumers. And even where a user abandons all use of “cookies” online, advertisers can “fingerprint” their web browser by cataloging the unique configuration of plugins, settings and other features of a browser.[iii] Especially for low-income families with less technological savvy, such solutions are almost completely useless. What is needed are significant policy changes that empower consumers to control not just collection but misuse of the data that big data platforms end up controlling.