I received a letter about a year ago from a constituent who doesn’t use email. He is a technology professional who believes that online communications are taking us to a bad place. He persuaded me to read Surveillance Capitalism, a well-researched call to arms against overreach by the Googles and Facebooks of the world.
Google started with the wonderful mission of making all the knowledge in the world accessible to everyone. I personally love Google for giving us so much progress towards that mission. I remember spending afternoons in the bowels of the Boston Public Library to dig out facts that I can now find in seconds.
Tools like Facebook and Snapchat enable us to connect to friends and family in ways that I use less, but still appreciate.
In Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff argues that during the .com financial crunch, Google had to turn in a more lucrative direction. Venture capitalists pushed them to monetize the data that they were collecting about user search activity. They began targeting advertising towards us based on our apparent interests.
Driven by the advertising profit potential, the company has moved further and further in the direction of collecting data about individuals. Google has created enormous value for us by rolling out great free products like Gmail, Chrome and Maps, but at the same time has gathered more and more information about each one of us as individuals. By creating wonderful tools for developers like Google Analytics, Google has induced developers to build connections that share data with Google into a large fraction of the mobile apps and websites in the world. By now, Google has a pretty good guess as to where billions of people are, what they are doing, and what they are thinking about.
Facebook and many other emerging companies are following Google’s basic business model: Give users something and take back a lot of data about each user, including data that the users have no idea that they are providing. We all give thought to what information we put into our Facebook profile, but we usually think less carefully about clicking a Like button and give no thought at all to what we might be divulging about our personality by how long we look at a particular image or the number of exclamation points we include in our comments.
And, of course, none of us read the fine print in privacy policies, which Zuboff points out should more properly should be called disclosure policies since they usually give companies broad license to share much of what they know about us with third parties.
We slowly get habituated to the idea that we are being minutely watched. If government regulators inquire about a particular data-sharing practice, the powerful technology lobby delays and dilutes proposed new rules. Meanwhile the companies move on to new methods of intrusion that the regulators haven’t even figured out yet. As the “internet of things” expands and our appliances and our cars and our homes share more real-time data with commercial entities, the intrusion of data-gathering capitalists will become more and more pervasive.
“Surveillance Capitalism” refers to this basic pattern of making money off increasingly minute and unpermissioned surveillance of individuals, which verges towards control of individuals through behavioral nudges.
I remain grateful for the value that the technology companies have created for us and hopeful about the future, but I do think that Zuboff effectively raises a question we all need to ponder: What do we need to do to make sure all this doesn’t go to a bad place? At this point, I don’t know the answer to that question.
I’d welcome your thoughts! Comment below or, if you prefer, just send me a letter at Room 504, the State House, Boston, MA 02133 or give me a call at 617-722-1280.
We need to regulate these technologies, not just with laws but also with amendments to the Constitution so as to make it harder for autocratic governments and courts to allow surveillance capitalism to flourish.
This is not new news! Anyone who puts information on line is opening it up to the world – both good and bad. If you don’t want others to know what you said on line, don’t say it. There are other ways to let people know what you think and do; try texting, calling or meeting for coffee. If you put a sign in front of your home or a bumper sticker on your car, it is there for the world to see. Posting on the internet is the same, but with a wider distribution. Quit whining about what others do with the information you provide to the world.
I think this is a disingenuous approach to a serious problem. Big tech is interested in money – what happens or facilitates the lives of the rest of this is a distant second (if it’s in the top 10 at all).
One thing to do, is not use Facebook as your login for other sites. Other than that, I participate as little as I can (eg, using Dropbox instead of Google Docs). A good portion of big tech’s success is the sheep-factor: oh, it’s just easier to go along and not think about it … Not to put too much spin on it, but that is how the reactionary “isms” get fuel to continue and expand (facism, racism, Stalinism, etc etc etc).
It is Fascism! We knew this was going to happen when Trump was elected and they started to deregulate everything. And, it’s not just Facebook and Google. The communication companies are getting in on it, to the extent that they will be monitoring our homes 24/7. We need strong laws that protect individuals and give people choices as to how much information they want to share. We also need to have the ability to turn this stuff off when we want. I don’t care about having a smart home. Already, I can’t shut down my internet without major hassles. And, these ugly/dangerous “antennas”/ cell towers are all over the place. Just drove to Westport, MA and there were antennas on poles all up and down the 95. I also saw a few huge billboards, (my point is it’s also interfering with the natural beauty of the landscape). If you want surround yourself go ahead, but people won’t have much of a choice unless we get some reasonable laws on the books.
Um texting is out. And your friend you were meeting? She’s already spread the news and that ended up accidentally going to all her email and Facebook contact lists.
That surveillance camera at Dunkin donuts?
It’s rediculously easy to request info from the police after the Patriot Act. I have kept my landline of which 96% of the calls are from robots. Like Netflix? So do they.
I really Do agree with you it’s just it’s increasing exponentially as the cost of data mining goes down. Watch the Brexit movie which is where Cambridge Analytica began.
I am most frightened for the elderly and naive. I had to intervene on three scary scams one of which nearly lost my parents 5K yet weekly we see the same ones in the Belmont paper. I’ve asked the detective there what we can do. She said they try everything but I say no we don’t. I’ve never gotten a warning in the mail, my tax bill, nor have I seen much except the ubiquitous police blotter.
My point being that as much as we give into it, or use common sense as you say, we can’t reach a large portion of users.
Btw I never lock my car. I grew up where that just meant they broke your window.
The problem is that the companies don’t tell us what they’re collecting or what they’re doing with it. People can’t make the decisions you insist they’re responsible for if the pros and cons are being actively hidden from them. Furthermore, using certain parts of the internet, such as Facebook, are nearly impossible to opt out of. I don’t have a Facebook account myself, but several groups that I follow use it as their primary mode of communication. Instead of being able to conveniently follow them, I get annoying banner/pop up requests to log in. Instead of being able to participate in conversations, I can only see what others have said. As a private citizen, this is fine, but if I were running a small business or running for office, it would be pretty much essential to have a Facebook page. And you can lock down privacy settings all you want, but they purposely make them increasingly opaque and don’t include all of the information. Remember a few years ago when the Facebook app vacuumed up the contacts from people’s phones, and they structured the programming change in such a way that they could avoid directly asking permission? It isn’t fair to demand that private individuals protect themselves from hugely powerful companies that do this, any more than it’s fair to demand that all private homeowners hire armed security to protect themselves, and say that they shouldn’t go whining to the police if all they did was lock the doors.
Fred, I didn’t hear Will saying this was a new problem–just a serious one. And I don’t believe the analogy with putting a sign on your front yard is a good one. A better analogy would be mailing someone a letter–and having your name, the recipient’s name, the date of mailing, and other information go into a database that was sold to other business and governments. Or buying a map at a bookstore, and having your name, the area covered by the map you purchased, the store you bought it from, and how you paid be entered into the same database, where it could be correlated with your phone calls, letters written, etc.
This is an extremely deep problem. On the one hand, we human beings are very poor thinkers — anyone wishing to learn more about this might begin by checking the Wikipedia entry on cognitive biases (just listening to people works too) — and computers have a tremendous amount of promise in helping us make more intelligent decisions. (The field is called augmented intelligence, and has I think way more promise than artificial intelligence.) On the other hand, it is very hard to see a way for computers to help us that does not involve sharing huge amounts of information about ourselves with the machines. So I guess the policy implications is to close as few doors as possible.
Regulation please. The tech companies must not be allowed to do whatever they please. We need rules about what they can collect, what they can share and what they can do with information about us. Congress doesn’t seem willing to do anything about it (and the Senate embarrassed itself when Zuckerberg was testifying), so perhaps it can start in the states.
Thank you for your calm and thoughtful treatmeant of this topic. I’d love to read the book and discuss more, especially the connection between a voluntary surveillance culture we are creating and how that does or does not relate to the surveillance culture known from repressive regimes (I’m thinking for example of the surveillance culture of Eastern Germany before the fall of the wall.) Again, thank you for getting me to dare getting my head out of the sand about this somewhat scary and overwhelming topic:)
Surveillance capitalism is up there with scariest books I’ve read recently (along with Democracy in Chains.) It describes how Google et al have effectively ignored/neutered/lobbied around any attempt to regulate them, giving them absolute freedom to collect data. And it’s not just what we put on the Internet: if you download an app that tracks your workouts, it may secretly be swiping your contacts, photos, whatever. Regulation is an absolute must, but that means getting money out of politics. And now that internet companies can affect elections, as they have shown they can in clearcut studies, that’s going to be tough.
I am discouraged in thinking that there is not much users can do about it. Thousands of people, of many professions, including lots of lawyers, work on the mining and usage of the collected data, the law, being extremely slow, cannot catch up with. We would need a new definition of privacy, but then how do we get the wonderful services we get for free now from Google and Facebook? Before addressing the inconspicuous Google and others I would like to solve the robocalling epidemic. I have somewhat resolved, at my end, in the manner how I answer the robocallers.
Ottavio et al, here’s what I use (for free) as a Verizon FIOS customer:
Verizon says “If you are a Verizon Fios customer you can register with Nomorobo (http://nomorobo.com/), a free, third-party service that that identifies known robocallers and telemarketers and stops your Fios Digital Voice home phone from ringing. Nomorobo will not work with Verizon’s Traditional copper voice service.”
About 95% of the calls I receive are from robots, and nomorobo blocks about 90% of them, and my cranky outgoing message seems to discourage most of the carbon-based solicitations that slip through that net.
A very tough situation and I do not think that government can do much about it. The only solution if for each company that uses an individual’s data to bluntly state in less that one paragraph how they will use such data, they can then place all of the legal mumbo jumbo after this paragraph. If a person then wants to sign up for this company then so be it as we cannot regulate a humans use of a computer, hell we cannot stop people from smoking tobacco, getting drunk, etc. BTW I use Google but got off FaceBook a year or so ago as I found it to be intrusive. Please lets keep the government out of high tech as they do not have a clue!
I dislike being bombarded by unwanted ads as a result of information
collected about which websites I have visited. Opting out (e.g. of “cookie” collecting ) should be the default.
And people should get a tangible benefit for opting in.
The big social media companies censor a lot of conservative content.
This is well-known.
What do you think of this, Will?
…That it’s patently untrue, if he has any sense. The people who are being banned are being banned for being literal Neo-Nazis, for spreading hate speech, and for claiming that well-documented events, like the Holocaust and the Sandy Hook shooting, didn’t happen. Furthermore, YouTube and Twitter frequently let the biggest stars off the hook no matter what they say, because engagement = ad revenue. If social media companies deleting lies and liars is evidence of liberal bias, then all of reality has a liberal bias.
Well Kathryn, I thinks there’s a perponderance of evidence to me and growing mistrust, worldwide, of these tech giants. I’m inclined to agree with the Pew survey poll published last year regarding public attitudes (that is concerning to me – I’ll bet it’s worse now):
Old news to me. I do read privacy statements (had to click through 6 screens on a contest site from a reputable website too. Until I do what I usually do and uselessly? Scream online (reviews etc.) Just giving them more information.
Regulation sounds great! Forget about it. Switch Lynex, search for absurd things, do not like anything except your friend’s photos. Go to the online articles about how to see the data already collected on you. I enjoyed a walk through my UberEats orders but not so much my work in criminal justice.
I have aliases everywhere. My Facebook is extremely old but once they linked to your cellphone that became a real joke. I don’t use encryption or other safety walls but I do make sure my birthday is all over the calendar. Stinks cause nobody can wish me a happy birthday on Facebook.
One piece of advice: do not allow photo recognition! I love how Google suggested that a skull from a horror movie was my relative.
We’re all toast no joke. If you’re into radical politics be Careful! Otherwise sit back and watch their banks grow!
My son got a free Amazon Echo for Christmas he didn’t want. His partner wouldn’t let it in the door. He tried to give it to one of us, but we all threatened to blow it up. It’s s sci-fi movie y’all.
Hilarious how Belmontonians freaked out about privacy intrusion if we put traffic cameras at bad intersections. But watch them take a “quiz” about their favorite star wars character or do they think Trump will be impreached. Ironic too that Belmont’s crimes are mostly scams and unlocked car theft.
Lock it up, use sense, no that site is Not ok just because it was last week on Tech crunch. Complain where it hurts. And shut your mouth it’s not your imagination yes they’re in your living room listening. I’m offered Google searches Based on what my son and I were talking about! And yuck really?
I disagree with you, Will.
You do not need to post anything to have it and your info disseminated. They get info about you from people you know — and yes, they can tell who you know.
I greatly dislike Google, Facebook, etc — would be much happier without their existence.
Very big problem. Google and Facebook provide a useful service to the user. The user, in turn, pays Google and Facebook by providing personal info. But is it fair trade at a fair price? Would it make sense to have Google and Facebook pay the user some more money for providing personal info?. The free market should set a price. But for the market to work well, Goggle and Facebook need to be more transparent. Legislation should enforce transparency. Better to minimize using these technologies for now.
Zuboff considered passing laws to enable users to be compensated when their data is brokered, but that isn’t practical (our data is aggregated and transformed in many ways, kind of like financial derivatives, making it impossible to track—except perhaps by blockchain, but let’s not go there). Nor would it prevent spy agencies from following us around the Web, either via our ISPs, the companies we deal with, or on their own. (It’s said that NSA can almost perfectly recognize your voice, as well as knowing who you digitally speak with along with your online contacts.)
Unfortunately, after 600 pages of investigations, Zuboff has no useful solution either. For the time being, encrypting email and connecting to the Web through a virtual private network (VPN, of which many are available at little expense) will have to do while we figure out how to undo the permissive legal climate in which digital media companies operate that Zuboff and Will have said is responsible for our online nakedness.
Surveillance Capitalism is driven by $$. Like pollution, industry only responded when a cost was associated with pollution. Likewise with data use. It is collected for free, mined and monetized to their sole financial benefit of the tech company. It seems to me if you want to modify tech / data industry behaviour, associate a cost with the use of data.
That is, make Google, F-book etc pay a royalty to the data subjects. The more data they collect the bigger the royalty they need to pay. And it also helps to share their profits with those whose data is used/exploited. I think getting a royalty would be happily supported by all citizens and dare I say, strong enough to overcome tech industry lobbying (bribery) of the money grubbing politicians.
500+ page starting with the obvious is a bit harsh, but a few friends abroad recommended me the book… will get back it 🙂 .
Is this challenge not about ensuring a space for meaningful alternatives to those services and the governance to ensure the existence of that space, and of course first having/keeping that governance (https://equalcitizens.us/)?
Search engine: http://www.qwant.com is at least one alternative (from western Europe – not Russia, not China yet .. I think? :-).
Sign-in: use your email. Resist the google/facebook sign in button. As a note – why does USPS do not provide its users with an email address, and portal to define how to route its content (mail, sign-in, filter, other standardized services) to where it is wished by this?
Will, I am surely not following you on facebook – please keep this site alive!
Thanks again to make us (feel at least) citizens…
I second this. qwant.com advertises itself as the only European search engine, but you can search on Google anonymously using startpage.com, also from Europe. I recommend using either (or duckduckgo.com) for all yoiur search engine needs. The one many hackers favor (because it reveals so many technical usage details) is called shodan (https://www.shodan.io/). What it can tell you is beyond frightening; see, for example, how shodan was able to track the NSA hacking kit called EternalBlue that, after it was leaked into the wild in 2017, quickly metastasized to deluge institutions around the world with criminal ransomeware attacks. https://www.shodan.io/report/w0AB7mDf
Regulation is the only way. Companies like Google have dedicated staff as well as clever consultants figuring out how to monetize everything they have access to. The results can be dangerous as well as annoying. (See page I of today’s NY Times for just one example.) We need a clear set of opt-out choices to limit what we are willing to share on Google and other such sites. If choosing opt-out A, B or X also limits what I can have access to, that’s a choice I would prefer to make myself.
I am attending Tech classes with “experts” at the Library and Senior Center trying to understand all this Social Media. I don’t trust Facebook but do only Emailing. Every time I order something online, somebody out there knows my interests, knows my location, etc. But I’monly worried that I’ll be someplace where something illegal happens and I’ll be tagged with it, just for being in the wrong place and the wrong time. Robo Calls are more troubling. I have names of everyone who might call me in my cell phone. When I don’t see a name, I do not answer, but wait for a message. I have saved about a dozen in my phone so far. But if it is at all legit and important, of course I’ll call them back.
To me the answer is one of our constitutional right to privacy. Legislation which would address the genie-out-of-the-bottle of unimpeded data collection BY ANYBODY is much needed … and who better to draft such legislation than our esteemed and thoughtful Will Brownsberger!
Will, thank you for addressing this issue. Surveillance capitalism may be changing our society is ways we find hard to imagine, and certainly have never consented to. It may be too late to stop it (I am astonished at how blase young people, especially, are about social media companies collecting their personal information) but we should try.
I am afraid that it will be difficult to get the federal government to act, because most of the justifications for seriously limiting the personal information Google can collect about individuals are equally valid justifications for limiting government collection of personal information. Thus, educating citizens about why restrictions should be placed on Google would educate them about why restrictions should be placed on the Federal government. Perhaps more importantly, I can only assume that the Feds use the business information capturing infrastructure as a “front end” to their own collection efforts–a very efficient and thorough front end that would be difficult and expensive for the government to duplicate.
Will, I think legislation is badly needed that would declare that:
A) all forms of personal information is “born private;”
B) individuals must “opt in” to the collection of personal information at every step of the way;
C) Opting in to the collection of such information cannot be made a condition of receiving services such as medical care, education, travel, banking, etc.
D) Personal information collected by one organization cannot be sold to another without the individual’s explicit agreement;
E) Individuals can demand an accounting from any organization of the information that hold on that individual upon reasonable notice; and
F) Individuals can withdraw permission to an organization to hold specific personal information at any time, upon reasonable notice.
And yes, I fully understand that a likely consequence of such legislation would be that many online services we currently use “for free” would suddenly require payment. Such is the price of privacy!
Remember the TV German sergeant of “I know nothing” fame? I resemble the “I know nothing” saw. I am nearing 84, and a computer dinosaur, learning via hard knock “lessons learned,” ie., financial scam(s); revealing personal bits of information; and not fully reading those little blocks where you sign away anything and everything. What I really want is the ability to completly witthdraw/erase whatever it is that I input into the FB and Google thingies. Until recently I was unaware of the collecting and saving by FB of my non political “likes” and “dislikes>” About one year ago I realized that advertisements were following me to my aol email site, and popping up laced between the “news feeds” on FB reflecting items that I had purchased on-line. As for any political orientation, my opinions via “likes” and “dislikes” purposefully change with the wind in order to cover my trace, that was a no-brainer from the get-go. So where am I going with this comment-leaving block: I desire to have the right to erase/withdraw any elements of information that I have submitted or otherwise made available to entities that collect same. A authortarian Government could very well play havoc with our destiny as individuals or a Nation, and absolutely no corporate entity should have the abiltiy to shadow us. I do not want or appreciate invasive Government regulations, but in this case, the population requires protection from…itself.
The amount of information the large tech companies have on us – accurate or not – is disquieting. I’m not especially troubled by its being used to target ads to me – good luck getting me to buy anything – but I am deeply concerned that it rarely stops there. Data the tech companies obtain for one purpose is regularly transmitted onwards and used by other entities for other purposes, without our knowledge or consent. Google can’t lock you up, but law enforcement can and will, and has already shown itself willing to make Massachusetts residents’ lives miserable for First Amendment-protected speech documented online (https://www.masslive.com/news/2014/12/chicopee_police_may_charge_man.html). At the federal level, the intelligence community will happily feed everything online about you into the NSA’s maw and give every person on earth a threat score.
Therefore, I believe that regulation should tackle first the challenge of law enforcement and intelligence agency collection, use and onward sharing of digital data.
Right now, for example, it doesn’t matter greatly whether Boston claims to be a sanctuary city or not, or if the state wants to give undocumented immigrants drivers’ licenses, if Vigilant, local law enforcement and Trump’s ICE are working together to track their every move (https://www.wired.com/story/ice-license-plate-surveillance-vigilant-solutions/). It doesn’t matter if we grandly proclaim that we believe in freedom of speech, if the price of getting a visa to even visit our country is to hand over your whole digital life to the government for review (https://www.justsecurity.org/63812/cbps-new-social-media-surveillance-a-threat-to-free-speech-and-privacy/)
Information is a weapon; the integration and digitization of vast datasets, available to law enforcement on a trivial showing, gives the government the whip hand over resident and nonresident alike. It should be the concern of every legislator to preserve for every person under the jurisdiction of our laws a sphere of unmonitored, free and peaceful personal space in which to thrive – the “right to be let alone” of which Brandeis spoke, and which the Fourth Amendment is supposed to preserve. This must include the ability to express ourselves freely, to associate freely, to practice our beliefs, and to agitate peacefully for meaningful change. Those freedoms are drained of meaning if the government is always potentially watching.
Slowly, the courts are iterating towards requiring warrants rather than administrative subpoenas for law enforcement use of digital data, but in the interim law enforcement has a relatively free hand in amassing digital dossiers on citizens. Thanks in part to the work of Digital Fourth (www.warrantless.org), Cambridge and Somerville have some protections in place against the deployment of surveillance technology, and Sen. Creem is proposing a ban on the use of facial recognition (S. 1385, please cosponsor). We need statewide protections of this kind; users need the ability to review, control and delete information the tech companies hold on them; and there must be much more transparency into and limits on what MSP, local police departments and fusion centers are collecting, of the kind that Sen. Chandler has long advocated.
(Even in point form this is still too long, sorry)
– Is privacy a right? An unalienable right? European GDPR may be a model for legislation but it leans on user consent. Should not be possible to cede an unalienable right. Unpleasant aspects: model is collect 10 box tops and win your very own Privacy. Unequal availability based on time, education, exposure to theads like this,… the usual extra choices being more possible to the more privileged. Compare with private (or better, anonymous) by default, or only minimal data allowed based on a reasonable definition of the basic purpose of the service involved.
– is it a right implicitly granted by the constitution (thinking of early Madison’s objections to bill of rights, implicit rights vs. enumerated)? If not, and we can’t even get ERA, how a privacy amendment?
– during the Kavanagh hearings I heard of innovations in interpreting and applying the first amendment in ways that aid/consolidate concentrations of power rather than innoculating against that. Would a privacy amendment or law burn us later by providing new tools to reign in journalism, whistle blowing, or activism tools like ICWATCH.
2. protecting yourself
– many things you can do or not do. Bigger than Google+Facebook.
Duck Duck Go for Richard Stallman and find what does to protect his privacy.
– Most large corporations cannot be trusted. People need other choices and the choices must be integrated into what others choose if we aren’t to become islands unto ourselves.
– free software lets you and others see the reality of what systems do and if you have control over where it runs, to change it.
– run what you can on your own computer, and use (free) software you can trust.
– when networks are a necessity (clouds on the horizon) limit the damage with federation: e.g. we each choose our social media service, the services communicate only as needed to reach those not on our local node/network (open standards of communication) Imperfect like email (you have a gmail address you espose me) but better than facebook like email.
– other technologies: tor, email encryption, etc.
3. protecting others
– if you see this message, bravo. Your usage of Cloudflare seems no longer to prevent me from using Tor to submit comments. It’s complicated avoiding inadvertantly unclothing others online
– inadvertent promotion of facebook by family and friends: get on or be left out! what other ways are we doing the networking equivalent of sending people MS Word documents (assuming they have MS word and are willing to run proprietary software at all)? What’s our part in the various network (in the political / economic sense) effects.
– if I ask Peter Pan if I can take a bus without giving my name will you call me a tinfoil hattest? Will being the wrong religion, race, or age bring even worse attention?
– jurisdiction? What’s most relevant at the state level? If done at the state level how to avoid race to the bottom as companies play states off each other threating job losses.
– how close was California’s law to Alastair Mactaggart’s activism and how much was it data hoarding companies heading him off at the pass?
– right to repair (stay with me a moment): if a device spies on you from the get go it’s broken as you buy it. In which case its software needs to be replaced with software you or a free software community control to correct it. Can right to repair be extended to software and how can laws help make writing alternative software (e.g. Replicant, PostMarketOS) easier: programmers need detailed hardware specs and when cryptographic locks validate the software running, we need control over the keys used so we can run what we want.
– renters rights? Soon will companies like Equity Mgmt. etc. make extra money sending light switch data to Amazon or Google? Can’t see the big national real estate companies leaving money on the table.
5. non-capitalist surveillance
– state actors: stingray, fusion centers, … talk to K. at Mass. ACLU, sure she’ll give you an earful
– individuals: dangerous ex-boyfriends or people with vendettas using info that need not have ever been public or hackable.
Thank you, Will, for providing the forum. I should think that the EU’s privacy protection legislation provides a good initial model for future regulation in Massachusetts and, if possible, the entire US. Beyond that I suppose that we must all recall that we are in effect in public when we are on line.
What I find difficult is that Google/Facebook/Twitter have wormed their way so thoroughly into the way we use the internet that it’s hard for most people to imagine doing without them — and yet to change the fundamental deal we have with these companies we would have to break their business model, profoundly. The problem is too huge to imagine that incremental changes would help.
I think maybe I’ll go and install DuckDuckGo now….
As a technology professional, I see two facets to this problem:
a) the collection of data about individuals, what can be and is inferred from it, the use of the data by the organization that collects it, and the sale or sharing of the data with other organizations who will use it for their own ends
b) the public’s perception/understanding of the above, especially in the context of what they believe they are getting “for free”
To me, b is the crux of the problem. Most people have no idea about the magnitude of the privacy issues raised by a. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to even try to understand what information about them is being collected and sold around, and certainly the companies that collect that information don’t make it easy to find out, if they let you know anything at all. The EU has regulations that as I casually understand them are a step in a good direction. Until Americans truly understand what they are giving away for all those “free” services, there will be little support for even that level of regulation here, especially when the tech companies start claiming that regulation would curtail what they can give away for free.
What strikes me as a good first step would be a regulation that forced every company that collects information about an individual to directly notify that individual, say once a month, what data they have collected, a summary of their overall profile information about that individual, and to whom (or what) they have sold all or part of that information. The tech companies would hate it, but this would set the table for better acceptance of regulation on the part of the public and more informed choices by the public.
Along these lines, one simple (and probably inexpensive) thing we could do at the state level is to better inform the public by offering some simple guidelines to help people protect their privacy. For example, I NEVER use a login from one service as a way to log in to another. Data aggregation is a tremendously powerful thing. Individual data points about an individual have a certain value, but patterns in the data allow all sorts of inferences to be drawn, bad enough when they are right (like patterns of searches outing people who wish to keep some aspect of their life private), possibly even worse when they are wrong (such as an inference that an individual is a credit risk, or, in the legal system, fits some negative profile).
Thanks for this Will. This is a very important topic that is evolving quickly.
You don’t even have to log in or sign up for your information to be tracked. Even if you are “anonymous” if you use the same phone or other device your habits can be tracked and matched to your identity. Not only to sell you things but some media companies are also using your interests to give you a different set of articles than someone with different interests has. I am concerned when that becomes more prevalent we could even get the same article with paragraphs changed depending on what our “tendency” is. All to keep our interest, sell us things and most dangerously perhaps guide our votes on key issues ( much like we’ve seen with less targeted disinformation campaigns such as we saw with tobacco, vaccine use, and global climate change).
Not to forget the easier ability to create political enemies lists based on “private browsing” such as happened during the McCarthy era without this ability to see people’s reading habits. We see the results of this kind of information in the wrong hands in any totalitarian state.
It is an opportunity to structure your information to present how you want to appear in the cyber world. There is no checks and balances here. You can pick and choose your identity and vote for or against with your ballots (dollars) to deposit in the ballot box (cyber banks). Use digital money in situations to be seen by the bots and legal tender for others. Take a page from the playbook of fake news and discover how it works and use it to your advantage.
Just to add, I share a land line with my sibling and internet access is through public library. I have concern about how telecommunications is being socialized with minimum monthly bills and unlimited minutes. We need to return to measured service. the more you use the more you pay. The current system is like giving addicts unlimited access to fentanyl
Re all the cell towers one writer saw, I just want to mention that many people are very worried about 5G technology which is being forced on us (no issues including medical issues are allowed as reason not to have them–in effect, no one has any say), and is much more hackable than what we have now, and–my biggest worry–5G has already been shown to badly affect health issues for a good number of people (regular wifi also is known to cause and worsen health problems for many). I struggle with depression and I’m very very worried about this. (5G will, of course put scads of money into the pockets of many companies and their already-wealthy executives, making them wealthier still.)
Inspired by a woman in Europe, I began an anti-5G petition, but have to keep writing about it (yikes–sometimes on social media!) to get people to go read up on it and maybe sign. Do you want 5G in diapers (yes, that’s in the plans), beamed at you from space, and in all cars, and one of the ugly mini-towers in front of your house, maybe not far from where you sleep? I read that Trump and his colleagues want it right now, and are pushing it, rather quietly, to keep up with China. It has barely–if at all–been tested on human or animal health. I felt so helpless, all I could and can do is protest and hopefully educate, so that’s what I’m trying to do.
Since writing my petition, I did hear a report that China’s 5G is slightly less bad because the distances needed between cell towers is bigger since they use a different frequency. One reason we don’t, apparently, is that our military is using 5G. But why can’t our military use the less powerful one, which would be healthier for our military personnel too?
As for the major part of this discussion, I agree we need a Constitutional amendment, or at least to start with something in this state, and Will should draft the legislation, perhaps using some of the many good ideas of writers here. Thanks again Will for bringing up important issues and beginning discussions, and for the time you clearly spent summarizing the book.
(To see the 5G petition that includes links to articles etc. that explain it better, go to https://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/813/839/624/)
I dunno how harmful 5G might be to living creatures, but do know that it’s pretty impossible to get away from wi-fi. I sit here within 20 feet of a smart meter and 35 feet away from another one and have worried about it, along with the signals from our devices and router. So I signed the petition. Good luck with your campaign. Other folks here, please go see it at https://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/813/839/624/
The real threat here, and you touch on it, is surveillance is becoming normalized. Think about Alexa. It is actively listening to what goes on INSIDE YOUR HOME. I’ve heard the counterargument that “well if I’m not doing anything wrong, then why worry?” But what happens when what is deemed “wrong” changes? We have given away so much of our freedom so willingly. Must regulate.
What’s a letter?
Thanks Will for the thoughts.
Thanks to Fred Pritikin who on June 7 reminded us that information / opinion in an individual’s mind remains sacred. Once uttered by voice or transmitted electronically, all thoughts have a life of their own without constraint. We need to cherish our province.
Thanks Will for your comments on this topic. Unfortunately, as long as we need credit for major purchases (bank loans, real estate, car, education, etc. ) we’re being watched. The only thing we can do is to avoid social media as much as possible.
Since reading this post and the book I was sent an article that covers much of the same ground but more clearly and succinctly: https://aeon.co/essays/privacy-matters-because-it-empowers-us-all
Comments are closed.