Press release

Users challenged to broker ethical trade-off between profit and privacy

Published on 9 June 2020

A University of Dundee student has created a digital experience that educates people about the shadowy world of data brokerage and the potential for companies to misuse the personal information we freely give up.

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A University of Dundee student has created a digital experience that educates people about the shadowy world of data brokerage and the potential for companies to misuse the personal information we freely give up.

Chris Wesley developed ‘Data Agency’ during the final year of his Digital Interaction Design degree. His is one of more than 300 exhibits at the Art, Design and Architecture Graduate Showcase 2020, which opens later this week.

Data underpins the strategies pursued by corporations and governments, while vested interests have been accused of using it to subvert democracy. As our digital footprints grow, so do controversies about the vast quantity of personal information held by Google, Facebook and other tech giants.

In Data Agency, the user assumes the role of a data broker, starting as an intern manually sorting information into categories. As the game progresses, the themes get darker and the sensitive data combined with unethical practices, such as connecting vulnerable users to unethical clients, begin to have repercussions.

By demonstrating how these brokerages operate and the sensitive personal data they deal with, the trade-offs between privacy and profit become apparent to the player.

“Data Agency is an interactive experience that exposes the lucrative world of data brokers,” explained Chris (21), who comes from Dunblane. “Our data is bought, analysed and sold in a multi-billion-dollar industry that remains unregulated and in the shadows.

“Most people don’t know anything about data brokers, but they certainly know you – the biggest companies have thousands of pieces of information on each user. Through this experience, I hope to engage the player with the subject, prompting them to consider their actions not only as a data broker in the game, but also within their real lives. I hope that players will take steps to gain more understanding of informational privacy and protect it.

“Data from your online and offline activity is bought from the companies you interacted with by brokerages. They buy from lots of different sources to build up a complete picture of an individual is based on their past activity in order to predict future purchases. Users are then packaged up into groups known as segments, which are then sold on to clients with the most interest in making contact with them.

“User-facing companies like Facebook and Google are in the public eye, which has progressed regulation. The point of Data Agency is to reveal the role of data brokerages in the selling of our information. In the UK, these businesses can’t sell personal identifying information such as your name, but they have found ways around it. With clients including pharma companies and government departments, the potential for misuse is huge.

“There is a huge power asymmetry between the services that profit from our data and the users, us, who generate it through our use of technology in our daily lives. The game is intended to take a critical view of data brokerage because I want people to realise the power of the information they provide and what companies could be getting up to. Hopefully it will provoke them into being conscious of who might be mining their data before they act.”

The Graduate Showcase is an online display taking place in the absence of the annual Degree Show, which has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It is hoped that a physical exhibition of work from this year’s graduating students can be arranged in the future and the Graduate Showcase aims to provide them with the best possible platform for their talents in the meantime.

The launch of the Graduate Showcase will be broadcast live online on Friday 12 June to students, staff, families, friends and other visitors. The launch will be accompanied by a social media campaign that will run until 21 June.

It celebrates achievements of graduating students from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design and the department of Architecture within the School of Social Sciences. The work on display will represent the culmination of years of creative development and hard work, with the website featuring expanded information on all students, including extra images and video content.


Grant Hill

Press Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768
Story category Student work/achievement