Top security expert warns firms are grabbing data faster than we realize

When Window Snyder joined Apple in 2010, she was truly a minority among minorities.

An African American woman software engineer, Snyder was working on something that nobody at the time seemed to care much about: privacy. Whether sharing photos or geographic location, people saw her efforts to protect privacy as blocking access to cool technology or to participate with a community, she said.

In other words, Snyder was the resident party-pooper.

Back then, getting people to appreciate privacy “was hard to justify,” she said during the UC Berkeley College of Engineering’s 4th Annual Women in Technology Symposium Friday.

Eventually, Snyder said she “convinced Apple that privacy could be a point of differentiation. Privacy has value. Privacy is something consumers value if they have an option.”

A decade later, the problem is no longer if consumers care about privacy. The problem is keeping pace with the increasingly inventive ways tech firms can collect and analyze personal data, said Snyder, now the chief security officer of payments firm Square.

For example, cameras in public spaces frequently conduct surveillance. Home smart devices like Amazon’s Alexa can record your conversations. Companies like Facebook and Google can use the microphone embedded in smart phones to monitor conversations and then craft eerily accurate ads. Thanks to sensors like Apple’s Beacon technology, retailers can track your movements in stores and know which products you examined and for how long.

Window Snyder 2
Square chief security officer Window Snyder spoke at UC Berkeley Friday as part of the 4th Annual Women in Technology Symposium

Even when a consumer gives her consent to data collection, there may be unintended consequences, Snyder said. For example, when you give a company your DNA, you’re not just offering your genetic information but also the data of your children and their children, she said.

Consumers “don’t know the full scope” of how companies collect data, Snyder said. “The scale is very difficult for a person to get his head around. It’s unreasonable for us to expect consumers to recognize all of this data that’s being used.”

To make matters more challenging, technology is moving so fast that even a pro like Snyder says she has a hard time keeping up.

“You have to consume a huge amount of information to stay up to date,” she said. “It’s like running on a treadmill.”

Tech firms need to employ capable people to oversee these data practices, Snyder said.

“If you collect data, you have to be good steward of that data,” she said. “That’s very hard.”

The problem is that a handful of companies control the data and they might approach privacy the same way. That’s why tech companies need diversity, including more women, to serve not only as engineers but also corporate board of directors, Snyder said.

For example, women are uniquely positioned to appreciate the need for tech firms to protect females from online stalking and harassment, an issue the symposium also covered Friday. In recent years, women have been the victims of “revenge porn,” in which a former boyfriend or ex-husband post nude photos on social media without their consent. Online trolls have also hurled abuse at women trying to participate in traditionally male dominated activities like sports and video games.

Throughout her career, Snyder said she has experienced her fair share of sexism and misogyny.

When someone asked Snyder if she wanted to share some stories, Snyder offered a quick reply.

“No,” she said.

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