Earlier this year, a New York Times reporter asked experts to analyze the data collected by websites he’d visited during a single day.
He said this about what they found:
“…everything you do online is logged in obscene detail…I was bowled over by the scale and detail of the tracking…I didn’t have to visit any shady sites or make untoward searches — I just had to venture somewhere, anywhere, and I was watched.”
Who, or what did the watching? Sites he visited wanted to know more about him (where he’d visited immediately prior, was he a returning visitor, could his kindasortanotreally anonymized identity be correlated with other online activities or histories, etc.). Google itself wanted to know the same things.
This information is used to control what and when users see certain online content, usually without their awareness that such decisions have been made for them.
It’s all legal, and it’s how the largest FAANGs make their immense profits. The stocks of the five FAANG companies accounted for almost 20% of the entire value of the S&P 500 last year.
And, apart from the handful of folks who read the reporter’s story, nobody is aware that these companies make their profits by closely and incessantly monitoring and remembering us.
They call our ignorance buy in.
Actually, Google has recently gone all Orwellian and is suggesting that blocking trackers (“cookies”) could hurt user privacy, not protect it.
Prison is freedom.
Not everyone will be easily convinced.
The EU has passed the GDPR to try and force some level of transparency onto the game, and is suing Facebook for billions in fines. Google is next on the list due to accusations it also violated EU rules by covertly collecting user data and selling it to advertisers.
Protestors in Hong Kong have been far more physical in their resistance, smashing lamp posts because some of them contain cameras, and Bluetooth and RRIF tags, and wearing masks to confuse the cameras that survive. Their overlords in China have already instituted a social ranking service that tracks peoples’ behavior as a determinant of what services they can and cannot use.
Yet in America, we’ve “bought in” to a system that not only has a similar capacity to monitor and then manage our lives, but that’s led by businesses that are working quietly and intently to slowly inch toward those outcomes.
I just don’t get it. Digital transformation isn’t inherently good or bad, it’s just technology, and there’s nothing wrong with people understanding its artifacts — a product, service, or the nature of the change itself — and then choosing to embrace or refuse them.
Shrouding that evolution in secrecy or purposeful obfuscation almost dares us to suspect that there’s something bad going on.
Yet, instead of an honest, open, and respectful conversation, we get tech execs and their apologists writing-off government oversight as the work of Luddites, and reasoned calls for better oversight anti-capitalist.
The New York Times reporter wrote, “If we all had pictures like this [his tracked online activities], we might revolt.”
Well, we have his picture. When will it be time to find a lamp post?