Late Sunday afternoon, months of rumours finally came to pass as Grab purchased Uber in Southeast Asia and moved one step closer to dominating ride-hailing in the region.
As part of the deal, Uber will be transferring its user data to Grab effective March, 25th. In an email to users sent last night, Uber wrote the following:
“In preparation for such new services data and information you previously shared with to Uber will be transferred to Grab. Grab will act as data controller and their terms and policies will govern your use of the service and your data.”
Suddenly, Grab is about to have a massive amount of information on millions of people in Southeast Asia.
This begs the questions, how should we think about this kind of data consolidation? Should Southeast Asians care?
First and foremost, Uber should be criticised for how it handled its data transfer. The company did not ask users for permission to transfer their data. Even by the low standards of tech companies, Uber didn’t even include a ‘click here to opt-out’ option.
Users simply received an email informing them that all of their Uber history — which includes name, phone number, and trip history — will be transferred to Grab.
Don’t like it? Tough.
Plus, as pointed out by Michael Smith Jr., a Partner at SeedPlus, Uber users are not being automatically transferred to Grab. Once the Uber app deletes in Southeast Asia, people will need to manually onboard to Grab.
“I personally think Uber should be asking customers if they are okay with the data transfer or not . As I know they are not automatically porting my account over so why should my Uber data be sent to Grab without my consent?” he asked.
The point is, there will be a moment when Southeast Asia consumers may choose to opt-out of the ride-hailing industry all together. Some folks may decide they want to change their lifestyle and start using public transportation and street hailing more often.
But, if these people were previously a loyal subscriber to Uber, Grab will still have their data — regardless of whether or not they ever use the service.
Aulia Masna, a former tech journalist, suggested there should be a framework to help people wrestle back control over their personal information.
“There ought to be an option to prevent an acquiring company to maintain possession of data of a person who refused consent to the transfer,” he said.
For most people, the Grab/Uber data transfer isn’t a big deal — heck, most users had both apps downloaded anyways. But what if the acquiring company was truly problematic?
Hypothetical. What if Equifax decided to expand into Southeast Asia by purchasing everyone’s favourite data analytics company? Let’ say part of that deal involved a full data transfer. Would consumers feel comfortable handing over their information to a company that just got hacked into revealing hundreds of millions of American social security numbers?
The point is. It doesn’t actually matter whether or not they feel comfortable. Consumers don’t actually have a say in the matter.
Does Southeast Asia care? Should they?
While its always silly to generalise 600 million people, for the most part personal data isn’t a hot topic in Southeast Asia.
For example, besides the United States, the other country that was directly impacted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal was Malaysia. There were some articles about the topic, but it never really exploded in the same way it did in the West.
“Southeast Asians often care little about their personal data and who holds them as long as they can get some benefit out of it, even if it’s as silly as being able to see the results of a quiz,” said Masna.
“Should we care? Hell yes we should,”
In the context of Grab, its important to consider our relationship with data because the company is making a serious move into financial services. The product is expected to tap into the data gathered via the ride-hailing service, which the company hopes will help build credit ratings for Southeast Asia’s underbanked.
Proponents of this data-based financial service would argue that the information being disclosed is not overly important and if it helps Grab provide better service, then that’s a good thing right? They very well may transform the way money moves and help solidify the financial health of Southeast Asia’s burgeoning middle-class.
Sure. Except for the fact that we are in a moment where we trust the infallibility of algorithms that are far from perfect.
In the book Weapons of Math Destruction, Data Scientist Cathy O’Neil explains that algorithms often fall into the trap of encoding prejudices and lacking feedback controls, which creates a loop whereby they reinforce false “successes” to the detriment of the consumer.
In the lending industry, lets say someone requests US$10,000 but only receives a US$5,000 because the algorithm suggests they are a high risk to default. This person then defaults on the loan because US$5,000 wasn’t enough to get the small business off the ground.
Technically, the algorithm correct — the person was deemed to be a risky bet and sure enough he/she defaulted. But, is it really a correct model? Or was the person set up to fail by the algorithm?
In Southeast Asia, as the internet economy truly takes off on a global scale, we need to demand more ownership over our data. It needs to be something that is actually considered when making purchasing decisions.
This information is a huge financial asset for most internet companies, thus making it one of the few leverages the individual has over these massive corporations.
If consumers don’t demand this basic level of customer service (asking to transfer data) then we might as well open a shop and sell our personal data for US$20 a pop.
At least then we can actually make some money off this information.
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