Taking control of our data | Alex Agius Saliba

Without us ever realising, digital platforms are making use of the data we provide by sharing it with companies for financial gain

If we had to ask ourselves one thing that we could not spend time without, the mention of digital devices and the use of social networks would certainly come up. Whether it is for work or for communicating with our friends and family, we cannot deny that the digital world has become an integral part of our lives.

We are all aware how much our lives have changed with the advancement of digital technology, but we rarely stop to think further about the consequences that every click online may have.

It is for this reason that I commissioned a study in recent months to focus on the use of social media and the use of other digital services in the Maltese Islands. Specifically, the study looked at the impact that the use of these services may be having on our lives and also sought to gauge the awareness of the Maltese population when it comes to our privacy online.

It emerged that 20% of the survey’s participants claimed that they spend more than four hours every day on social media, with 80% of these individuals also claiming that they believe that social media has become an addiction for them.

And even though a perception may exist that the use of social media is mostly for the younger generation, the findings from the study show that almost 63% of all participants, spend between one and four hours online daily.

When one takes stock of these results, it is easy to understand how dependable we have become on the use of these digital platforms. These platforms have become the new town squares, replacing the traditional squares and physical spaces where human interaction used to take place. Social media has grown into the place where the majority of the Maltese choose to socialize, network and keep updated with the latest news.

It is common practice to believe that the use of these digital platforms come at no cost to us, but this is not in fact true. Without us ever realising, digital platforms are making use of the data we provide by sharing it with companies for financial gain. By analysing our data, businesses can target their online advertising to those people who are more likely to show an interest in their product. It is unacceptable that our personal information is being sold for financial gain and I believe that we have a responsibility at a European Level to make sure that we act on this practice.

This new digital age has brought with it countless benefits and we must admit that is unlikely that we will ever stop using such platforms. Users who do so feel excluded from society as they lose the space to communicate and express their opinion. This fact has been abused by companies where users see themselves as digital citizens while companies see us as consumers.

The study shows that the Maltese give high priority to their privacy but then rarely take any action online to protect it, with the younger generation more willing to trade their privacy for the benefits that being part of society gives them.

Our aim should be to create a more just and transparent digital space where users feel free to participate and involve themselves without being exploited for their data. For this to happen, the work must be two-fold, a focus on educating our society to protect our privacy online and legislation to create a fairer playing field online allowing users to choose their preferred platforms and which data they wish to share online.