Unless we demand changes, Big Tech will continue to profit off our personal information – with our benighted permission
As security expert Bruce Schneier (a friend) has archly observed, "Surveillance is the business model of the internet." I don't expect this to change unless and until external realities force a change – and I'm not holding my breath.
Instead, the depressing news just seems to be getting worse. Google confirmed this week what many people had assumed: even if you're not a Gmail user, your email to someone who does use their services will be scanned by the all-seeing search and the advertising company's increasingly smart machines. The company updated their terms of service to read:
Our automated systems analyze your content (including e-mails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.
My system doesn't do this to your email when you send me a message. I pay a web-hosting company that keeps my email on a server that isn't optimized for data collection and analysis. I would use Gmail for my email, if Google would let me pay for service that didn't "analyze (my) content" apart from filtering out spam and malware. Google doesn't offer that option, as far as I can tell, and that's a shame – if not, given its clout, a small scandal.
Also this week, Advertising Age, a top trade journal for the ad industry, reported that tech companies led by Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook are moving swiftly to fix what they plainly see as a bug in the system: It's more difficult to spy on us as effectively when we use our mobile devices than when we're typing and clicking away on our laptops. Here's a particularly creepy quote in the story, courtesy of a mobile advertising executive:
The universal ID today in the world is your Facebook log-in. This industry-wide challenge of mobile tracking has sort of quietly been solved, without a lot of fanfare.
Facebook may be getting the message that people don't trust it, which shouldn't be surprising given the company's long record of bending its rules to give users less privacy. CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the New York Times' Farhad Manjoo that many upcoming products and services wouldn't even use the name "Facebook," as the company pushes further and further into its users' lives. The report concluded:
If the new plan succeeds, then, one day large swaths of Facebook may not look like Facebook — and may not even bear the name Facebook. It will be everywhere, but you may not know it.
Maybe. But Facebook will know you. And like Google, Facebook won't let me pay for its otherwise excellent service, something I'd gladly do if it would agree not to spy on me.
Barring that, what I do to employ countermeasures wherever possible, and to make choices in the services I use – such as relying more and more on the DuckDuckGo search engine. DuckDuckGo isn't as likely to give me the results I want as easily as Google, but it has proved to be good enough for most purposes.
But in a week when news organizations (like this one) won Pulitzer prizes for revealing vast abuses of surveillance by the government, one might hope that corporations would show even the slightest sign of retreating from their longstanding practices that, if conducted by the government, would give most citizens pause.
After all, there is outrage over the NSA surveillance revelations. The Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the federal government on our behalf over the FBI's burgeoning facial-recognition system, one in an array of technologies combining sensors with vast databases carrying the Orwellian designation "Next Generation Identification".
Even in Los Angeles County, and other places where law-enforcement authorities want to hide their own own methodical encroachments on people's privacy, police leverage facial recognition and other tools in ever-creepier ways with little public knowledge. As the Center for Investigative Reporting reported a few days ago, a sheriff's department sergeant explained why the department didn't tell the public what they were doing:
The system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in the public. A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so in order to mitigate any of those kinds of complaints, we basically kept it pretty hush-hush.
This is what gives me hope. If the snoops are worried that we'd reject their snooping, we still have a chance to turn this around.
The situation will only get worse if we don't take what we learn and insist – to the politicians who represent us and the companies we patronize – that the details of our lives are not theirs to buy and sell. I don't believe we get the society we deserve, but we do get the one we allow.