What does Big Tech and a vending machine have in common?

Join the fight against big tech to get your data and profits back!

Privacy, at least in the online world, has always been somewhat invisible. It’s hard to see it, to grasp it, and in particular to really understand what’s happening with your personal data. After all, how do you understand something you can’t see? But when something highly visible happens, for example the Ashley Madison hack, where a data breach had tangible and visible impacts on real people’s lives, all of a sudden people stand up and take notice.

The same thing happened when I wrote the original digital vision for the innovation partner RFP for Waterfront Toronto that Google (Alphabet) won and turned into Sidewalk Toronto. The initial excitement, ne apathy, towards using data to improve everything from energy efficiency and air quality to local food production and proactive transportation services in this ‘smart city’ zone turned to absolute public outrage that effectively spelt the beginning of the end for the project. 

When this invisible concept of data use was made visual through the literal built-form construction of a tangible cityscape running on data, as opposed to hidden on some virtual server physically invisible to an internet user, the realisation that a building might be able to see and recognize the person became apparent. And the fear of being watched by something seemed far too Orwellian for most. Now there was an existential threat to see, understand and act against.

And herein lies a truism for the data privacy agenda (as well as many other things); People tend to care, and therefore take action, when they understand and can relate it to an existential threat, (or a benefit) to their personal situations. 

This was all very interesting to me. People were quick to object to such covert profiling in the real world, yet most seemed to accept the same practice (covert profiling) on the internet. Perhaps because they couldn’t see it, to understand it 

LetAlone was formed off the back of this to give people back control of their online data and privacy, but it also created a side agenda. One to make the intangible, tangible. To make people care, by helping them to see and to understand. And therefore be empowered to take action.

Our vending machine stunt was one of our favourite versions of making the intangible, tangible. Due to the aforementioned lack of understanding, many people still tend to shrug at their personal data use online, often simply equating it to receiving an online advert. We wondered what would happen if we created an ‘IRL’ version of Big Tech. Something that quite literally vends personal data to anyone that wants to buy it. Which is exactly what happens on the internet.

So we bought a vending machine. We bought personal data of nearby residents in New York. And we put that data directly onto the snacks in the vending machine, with recognizable internet branding, right outside Google’s New York headquarters.. And waited to see people’s reactions. Did they care?

The reactions you see are real. We were able to capture what people really thought about data about them being so freely available. Derived from them being tracked around the internet. And from them having no control or even financial reward from those activities.

To us it was the perfect illustration that we just need to help people understand the current system is not ok. That law alone cannot fix it. It needs collective participation and a voice to create a better, more equitable digital future for us all. 

And if you agree that the current system is broken, that the issues and reactions you see in the video need a new solution, then join us. Sign up to our beta, and let’s take the fight to big tech together, starting with taking back control of your data and the profits, which are rightfully yours…

THAT Original Film created by Technology, Humans, and Taste (that.nyc)