Big Brother is Watching Us, and his name is Google or Facebook
‘Behind the hoodies and flip-flops lurk business people as rapacious as the black-suited and top-hatted industrialists of the late 19th century. Like their predecessors in railroads, steel, banking, and oil a century ago, Silicon Valley's new entrepreneurs are harnessing technology to make the world more efficient. But along the way, that process is bringing great economic and labor dislocation, as well as an unequal share of the spoils.’ Rob Cox: The Ruthless Overlords of Silicon Valley, Newsweek.
We’re the lucky ones: we are free, we value our privacy, we have choices, and we have the right to vote. So why are we surrendering our right to privacy, and allowing internet giants to know all about our work and leisure habits, our interests, our passions and our most intimate desires? And why don’t we object to them selling our private data to other organizations?
Surveillance used to be the province of totalitarian regimes and dictatorships, carried out by their secret police forces: the STASI in East Germany, the KGB in the Soviet Union, Pinochet in Chile, Saddam Hussein in Iran, Kim Jong Il in North Korea.
The China Syndrome
The Falun Gong movement is still banned as an evil cult in China. Its followers are harassed, imprisoned, tortured and brainwashed, but for the rest of China’s 1.4 billion people Xi Jinping’s government has devised a new way of mind control: an electronic tracking system with face recognition software, supported by a huge network of cameras located at strategic points in shopping centres, railway stations, airports and so on.
The data collected feed into a ranking system that determines the ‘social credit’ of each citizen. It’s a modern, more subtle version of the old cattle prod: make a wrong move, and you’ll suffer pain. If your social credit drops too low because you’ve not been a model citizen, you’ll find your internet access limited, your travel options restricted, your application for a loan rejected, and your kids barred from attending the best schools – More details here.
Image Source: Andrew So, Four Pins
Everywhere You Go
In western countries, users of the internet and mobile phones have been under surveillance for many years. Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the US National Security Agency’s surveillance program known as ‘Prism’, which had ‘tapped directly into the servers of 9 internet firms, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo,’ according to a BBC report.
The report added that Britain’s spy agency, GCHQ, had been monitoring 200 fibre-optic cables carrying global communications in an operation codenamed ‘Tempora’.
Snowden also revealed that US intelligence agencies had spied on the governments of its closest allies, and bugged their embassies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel accused the Amercians of monitoring her cell phone, and demanded an explanation. It turned out that the NSA had been monitoring the phones of 35 world leaders, according to The Guardian.
Beware of Entrepreneurs Bearing Gifts
How many of those free Google apps are you running? The more apps you use, the more the giant knows about you. Just take a look at this infographic, but even if you only use Google’s search engine, the company knows more about you than you’re likely comfortable with.
Facebook knows all about you as well: ‘Every message you’ve ever sent or been sent,’ says Dylan Curran in The Guardian, ‘every file you’ve ever sent or been sent, all the contacts in your phone, and all the audio messages you’ve ever sent or been sent.’ Of course the social media giants collect all this data so they can serve you better. And it’s not just you they know all about; they know your friends as well – who they are, what you talk to them about, where you meet them and more.
Image source: the intercept.com
Despite the scandals and senate inquiries that kept Facebook in the headlines for most of 2018, its user base continued to grow unabated. Do people care so little about their privacy? Do they not care that Facebook sells their personal data to dozens of organizations? Are they so gullible that they believe Zuckerman’s and Sandberg’s assurances that they’ll do better from now on?
‘At every step of this story,’ Whistleblower Christopher Wylie told the Guardian, ‘Facebook has lagged behind the truth. It was only when I came forward with documents that proved Cambridge Analytica had funded the harvesting of Facebook profiles that it was finally forced to own up.’
In January 2019, Google became the first major company to be fined for breaching the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws: the company was fined $US 57 million, because it didn’t obtain proper consent to target ads at its users, and didn’t fully explain how or why it collects people’s data. Google’s profit last quarter was over US $9 billion dollars, so it would have taken just over half a day’s profits to cover the fine.
The UK’s Information Commissioner fined Facebook US$650,000 in the wake of last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. That was the maximum allowed under the old data protection rules that applied before GDPR took effect. Facebook’s third quarter 2018 profit was close to US$7 billion, so it would’ve taken just 15 minutes of trading to recover that fine.
In December 2018, the District of Columbia launched a suit against Facebook over its handling of user data. Fortune reports that the company had ‘allowed, even after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, more than 150 companies to access more users’ personal data than it had disclosed, prompting renewed calls for Congress to act.’
The Wrong Track?
We’re an open book to these companies, as Time magazine makes clear: ‘ … your background, politics and even ‘ethnic affinity’ are tracked,’ it says. ‘Meanwhile, retailers are notified via Bluetooth and GPS when you enter their store, what your income is and how much time you’ll probably spend shopping.’
Little wonder that Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the internet, calls it ‘A massive invasion of privacy.’ I guess Tim, like the rest of us, didn’t anticipate the information economy that exploded around his brainchild. Even without Google and Facebook, we’re easy targets. Most websites we visit know our location. If we store bookmarks and passwords in our browsers, we throw the doors open to hackers and help them write genuine-looking phishing emails to our friends and colleagues.
It’s the same principle advertisers use to personalise the ads they post on the websites you visit, ads that play to your interests and habits. In fact, ‘most of the websites you visit are already sharing your activity with a wide network of third parties who share, collaborate, link and de-link personal information in order to target ads,’ says Jules Polonetsky from Future of Privacy Forum.
Please Enable Cookies
It seems that people are happy to trade away their privacy for access to social media, or for a cool Google app or two, as innocent natives once traded their treasures for the white man’s trinkets.
Artiste Risa Puno ran a small experiment at a Brooklyn arts festival, which she called ‘Please Enable Cookies. ‘The cookies — actual cookies,’ Mashable tells us, ‘came in flavours such as “Chocolate Chili Fleur de Sel” and “Pink Pistachio Peppercorn”.’ Puno managed to collect addresses, drivers licence numbers, the last 4 digits of social security numbers and mother’s maiden names from between one third and half her audience. Some even traded their fingerprints for cookies.
The Ultimate Seduction
Security guru Bruce Schneier likens your smartphone to a tracking device. ‘If we were told we had to inform the police when we made a new friend, we would never do that,’ he says. ‘Instead, we inform Facebook.’ He adds, ‘Or [if we were told to] mail the police a copy of every bit of our correspondence? Just in case? We don’t, but Google stores it for us.’
The sheer convenience of the mobile phone stops the privacy arguments for most people. They justify giving up their secrets by assuring themselves that this is the way the world works now, that it’s useless to resist as Darth Vader made clear to Luke Skywalker.
Are Smart Speakers Spying on You?
More seduction, this time by voice-activated virtual assistants like the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod, speakers that will carry out your commands to add things to the shopping list, to play music, to schedule appointments and to wake you up in the morning. ‘Are they helping hands or Trojan Horses?’ asks John Kruzel at Politifact.
Trojan Horses? Amazon says it uses recordings to ‘improve your experience and our services, while Google uses the recordings to make services ‘faster, smarter, more relevant, and more useful,’ and to provide ‘better and more personalized suggestions and answers.’ Between them, they have more than 80% of the speaker market sewn up.
Whether we believe their promises or not, people have reported that the speakers have recorded their private conversations and sent them to contacts on their list of friends. Apparently, the speaker’s action was triggered by one of the ‘wake-up’ words in the conversation (the speakers go to sleep until they hear the command), followed by other words which the speaker mistook for names of people on your list of friends. What happens when you have a dinner party is anyone’s guess.
Big Data, Bigger Profits
In ancient times, it was warlords who held the power. In Doctor Who, it’s Time Lords. In the always-connected era, it’s data lords. Companies like Google and Facebook began with simple objectives, until they realised they were sitting on a goldmine: our work and leisure habits, our interests and our passions were information that advertisers were prepared to pay handsomely for.
Image Source: BBC
Today Facebook and Google have garnered more than half of all internet advertising revenue, while traditional media and their advertising channels are disintegrating. Over the same period, supercomputing power became a commodity and turned crunching huge data sets into child’s play.
2012, Charles Duhigg at the New York Times told us ‘How Companies Learn Your Secrets.’The example he gave was how data analysts in Target’s marketing group had used predictive analysis to discover that a young woman was pregnant (from a change in buying habits) before her father knew.
Data storage also became much more generous and affordable, so suddenly all the obstacles to archiving mountains of data forever disappeared. Google apparently keeps all the data it has accumulated over the years, so does Facebook and so does Amazon.
Brave Old World
They’re not content with hording data, of course, or selling it for billions. They're determined to change the world. They’re changing the way we communicate with friends, colleagues and customers, they’re changing the way we shop, work, operate and live. They’re sucking us into a new world where have to we play by their rules.
It’s the industrial revolution of the new millennium, and it needs cheap labour just like the first one did in the steel mills. Amazon runs its warehouses much like the robber barons ran their factories in the 19th century. Workers are set sky-high targets, have no time to eat or go to the toilet, have to work unpaid overtime to catch up, and are spied on by fellow-workers … More details here.
The robber barons of old, the Carnegies and the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers, manipulated the markets in which they operated to their advantage, making huge profits by exploiting workers, crushing competitors, and lobbying governments who might be thinking of legislating for a more level playing field. The technology is different, the rest is the same - why should we trust them?
- Trackback Link
- Post has no trackbacks.