“You don't think one piece of information is valuable, but often data isn’t in isolation,” said Tombs. Many people overlook how information can come together to reveal personal information. Giving a piece of personal data to one company and another and another can lead to involuntarily revealing a bigger picture about a person’s life.
Furthermore, people should consider the risk to their personal information with the convenience of technology. Smart speakers are listening for the opportunity to help a user but are also listening to conversations not meant for that company. New artificial intelligence assistants are using search terms submitted by users to improve the algorithm by integrating each query into the training data. New apps often require users to create accounts and track how users navigate through an app in order to improve the user experience. Each time a person types or talks into an app, the person may be giving a piece of personal information to the company, and how the company uses that data is out of the hands of users.
While Tombs is protective of her information, she also recognizes the need for research and companies to access data. Through her own research using machine learning on sensitive data like health records, Tombs sees the benefit of doctors and scientists uncovering correlations that wouldn’t be seen without large, merged data sets.
Finally, Tombs advocates for people to understand how those close to them view the tradeoff between privacy and convenience. The lack of protecting one’s information can influence others living in the same house. “Your data will influence other people who are very closely connected to you. You should be aware of their tolerance levels and maybe consider how your preferences impact theirs.”
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science. — Liz Neunsinger