When it comes to using and abusing our personal information, the spotlight is, as it should be, on Facebook. But Facebook has company in this regard - a lot of company! In fact, there are thousands of companies that must be breathing easier with all the attention focused on Facebook, because that’s how many are spying on us and manipulating our information. The scary part is that we may be totally unaware it’s happening or of its scope and breadth.
And more keep getting revealed. We probably knew that Facebook can glean personal information about us - our proclivities (like sexual orientation), political beliefs, substance abuse. and so forth. But we might be interested to learn that not only can more information be purchased from third parties, but that we can provide information from messages that we delete before posting!
The term that, Bruce Schneier, Harvard Business School professor and cryptography legend, uses for this information abuse is “surveillance capitalism,” and its purveyors have been at this game for a long time. The question it raises is what are we going to do about it? It may be well and good to have Mark Zuckerberg trot up to Capitol Hill for a grilling but what to do about the 3000-4000 other data brokers getting rich from their deceptive practices?
Today we are wringing our hands over Cambridge Analytica’s compromising the data of some 80 million souls, while it less than a year ago, Equifax was in the dock as hackers stole personal information on 150 million people, including Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and driver's license numbers. This, too, occurred without our knowledge or consent. “Surveillance capitalism,” however, doesn’t require a data breach as in the case of Equifax and others. We help them.
Part of the explanation as to why it’s so pervasive and profitable is that it not only happens surreptitiously, but it happens with our consent as it were as the likes of Facebook and Google offer us free services in exchange for our data. And we aren’t just sharing intimate information about ourselves. We are revealing authentic, bankable data, because, after all, we don’t lie to our search engine.
Even the websites we visit are tracked by Google via its advertising network, our Gmail accounts, our movements via Google Maps, and our smartphone activity. And speaking about smartphones, they divulge a treasure trove of information on us - the least of it, but important enough, is our location. From those tidbits of information, one can discern, as Uber did, where we might have had a recent one-night stand. It knows when we tucked in for the night, and when we awake. Since it’s always with us and always on, it tracks our location continuously. It knows where we live, where we work, and where we spend our time.
At the heart of surveillance capitalism is psychology - or better- psychological manipulation, and our fixation with computers and the Internet. The goal is to get you to act in a certain way - to do something, to buy something. In the case of Cambridge Analytica, the end game was to sway you to vote a certain way. In the fractious political environment at the moment in the UK with Brexit, and in the US. with the 2016 presidential election -seismic events and politically-charged powder kegs - there is much righteous indignation and finger pointing.
But stuff like this isn’t news - or, at least, it shouldn’t be. It is only big news now because Facebook and Cambridge Analytica got caught with their hands in the cookie jar, as it were. The bigger danger to our privacy is what is, and has been going on for years, in secret. In fact, the irony is that it has been allowed to flourish because we felt the Internet should be unfettered, unregulated. How ironic indeed that the very same people are now clamoring for government intervention and the subsequent regulation.
But Zuckerberg and others appear to be on board with some sort of regulation. For with AI being imminent and, advances in big data analysis, tomorrow's applications may be even more worrisome regarding unwanted surveillance than they are today. As far as regulation goes, the US can take a cue from the EU and its GDPR. That law says that personal data of EU citizens can only be collected and saved for "specific, explicit, and legitimate purposes," and only with the express consent of the user. There will be no company-friendly and user-obscure opt-out clauses, which put most of the onus on the user.
If something isn’t done by an outside agency (like Congress) to dampen surveillance abuses, it will be done by the marketplace, as the stock markets punish the offending companies. On second thought, that might not be a bad way to get the attention of the greedy, bottom-line-conscious companies.
Image credit: By D K Grove/Shutterstock.