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Privacy Now! The Destructive Influence of Big Data Surveillance

by May 17, 2019

This is our final installment of the 5G Wireless Apocalypse series. So far, we've seen how 5G will revolutionize cities at the expense of our privacy. New Internet of Things (IoT) technologies could bring us all the benefits of the smartphone experience to the off-screen world. But without new ethics and regulations, you’ll have about as much privacy on the streets as you currently have browsing your Facebook news-feed.

The problems we can anticipate in the 5G future are really just an extension of today’s online privacy concerns, that dates back to the early days of Google. Today, everything we do online is relentlessly tracked and profiled in a cloud of behaviorial data collection. That data is used to manipulate us with the promise of personalization, giving each of us a unique Internet experience through search and social media that's really designed to shock us with a skewed version of reality based on our own biases, to keep us angry and engaging with ads. Unless you’re deliberately following specific guidelines, your exposed to more spying than ever in human history. All that data collected about you is used in a fierce competition for your attention, and the results are not good for society or democracy. But first, how did we get here?

The Story of Behavioral Data Collection

GoogleBack in the early 2000s, a growing new search engine called Google began to seize click-share from incumbents like Yahoo and AltaVista. Around 2001, when the dot-com bubble burst, young tech companies needed to figure out how to start generating revenue fast. But Google was already onto something big - targeted advertising. The search company had been experimenting with the byproducts of browser activity in order to get better picture of the person behind the search. It was once called data exhaust, the various log files, cookies, breadcrumbs and temporary files generated by Internet browsers, they were the refuse of the Internet. But Google figured out how to use this data to track trends and predict future clicks with purpose-built machine learning algorithms that turned targeted advertising into the most profitable science of our era. What was once the garbage of the Internet has become incredibly valuable “behavioral data” that is used to create an accurate psychographic profiles of you. The more information search engines and new social media platforms can get about you, the more accurate the profile and predictions of what you want to do next. Knowing just a few of your preferences, a machine-learning algorithm can extrapolate much about the kind of person you are. By collecting your likes, shares and clicks over time, and these algorithms know you better than your own mom.

Predictions about your behavior, based on your collected data, were integrated into new pay-to-play tools that are commercially available to anyone for advertising. This created an incentive to collect your personal details across the entire economy, and a corresponding Internet-wide push to get ads in front of eyeballs. No little decision you make online is too small to be collected and added to your profile. A new market has been created that deals in data about you, that's bought, sold and traded all without your knowledge. The digital advertising boom has contributed to many of the most high-value companies in the world, including Google, Facebook and Amazon. Many of today's smartest engineers and data scientists are now working for these companies with the single-minded focus of data gathering and refining the algorithms to monitor, predict and even control your behavior.

We Chose the Moon Once

KennedyThe power of a unified goal that absorbs an inordinate amount of talent from the rest of the economy cannot be understated. Untold profit has made the science behind behavioral data collection and analysis the premiere technology of our time.

During the peak-heat of the Cold War, President Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon.” Rocket science was a euphemism for genius and the smartest minds of 1960s America rallied behind the noble goal of landing a man on the moon. By the late 1990s, the profit motive had rallied behind a deregulated financial sector and the smartest minds in America became the data scientists and mathematicians building the inscrutable financial products for Wall Street that would go on to collapse the economy. Today, the most brilliant minds in the world are recruited to build and refine the machine-learning behavioral algorithms designed to predict and manipulate your behavior online. We can only guess at the outcome.

Surveillance as a Natural Resource

Feeding advertiser tools requires a single natural resource, every intimate detail of your life. The result is a large part of the economy being devoted to mass surveillance online. East Germany of the Cold War is widely held as one of the most surveilled nations in history. An organization called the Stasi was dedicated to figuring out clever ways to infiltrate the most intimate moments in the lives of its citizens. But the sum of the East German economy was devoted to a range of endeavors and only one agency was spying. In 2019, every conceivable industry in any free market economy is contributing in some way to spying on you.

Download an app to your smartphone or buy any new “smart” product, and you’re inviting the company that made it into the details of your life. You’re allowing them to track your use of the device and anything else it can obtain access to. As we scroll through to the Accept button on countless Terms of Use agreements, we’re scrolling through a boilerplate of legalese that says the product or app has the right to gather whatever data on you that it can, and share that data with whoever it wants.

There’s already a commercial rush to create Internet-connected products and get them into your hands, often at lower or subsidized prices than the non-Internet connected version of the same product. Anything you buy with the prefix “smart”, means the product provides an additional revenue stream to the manufacturer, because your behavioral data has tangible market value in a new surveillance marketplace. When 5G arrives, spying will have new insights into your life through Internet of Things (IoT) devices, 5G sensors along the sidewalk will be able to track you through city-wide networks. Without specific regulation, advanced facial recognition software will bring personal identification to the commercial surveillance industry, giving it an added capability of matching your real-world behavior outdoors to your various online profiles.

Alexa - Are You Spying On Me?

Facebook Mood ExperimentWe expect that voice-activated smart-devices like Alexa are spying on us. It’s a joke of the digital age that virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod are listening in on your conversations. When these devices are on standby they are indeed listening at all times for the “wake word” that activates it. You have only the ethics of the manufacturer to trust that it’s not listening in on your household conversations for additional behavioral data.

New products for the smart-home can track many of the more intimate details of your lives too. Your smart TV knows what you’re watching. Many smart TVs include third-party apps that might also be independently spying on you, much the way your phone may have multiple apps installed, all of which are separate entities, gathering your data. Meanwhile, your smart thermostat can collect information about your energy use, and is liable to share it with the local gas company. These information transactions open up new business efficiencies and revenue streams, and if you’ve accepted the terms, it does so with your consent and without regard to privacy.

The Curse of Personalization

Personalization is used to define your psychological profile so it can find your vulnerabilities....

The data collected on you is used to optimize your profile for any given ad-platform. The promise of personalization is presented as a feature to help you, but it is not your friend. Personalization is used to define your psychological profile so it can find your vulnerabilities and manipulate your behavior in clever and insidious ways. Your new smart refrigerator may quickly learn all about your propensity for high-carb midnight snacks. When that data is associated with your profile on any number of separate platforms, it knows to serve you customized ads designed to exploit your low-blood sugar state, at just around 11:30 PM. It has even been alleged that a smart, voice-controlled mattress can use its built-in microphone to track those sweet nothings you whisper to your significant other in bed. Even smart children’s dolls and toy robots may be tracking your child’s playtime, recording their voice and sending it back to headquarters.

Statista says that by 2024, there will be some 62.12 billion Internet-connected devices in circulation, all of them will specialize in gathering data on some aspect of your life.

What’s The Harm in a Little Advertising?

Many of us may be nonplussed about being relentlessly spied upon. We may not like it, but all that spying is only being done by private businesses with the relatively benign goal of serving you targeted ads. If you have nothing to hide, there’s nothing to worry about, right?

“The tools of this new way of doing business, pioneered by Google and Facebook are no longer confined to the context of online targeted advertising and now span the entire economy. The consequence of this business logic is on a direct collision course with democracy.”

- Shoshana Zuboff, Surveillance Capitalism

Facebook Mood Experiments to Cambridge Analytica

We’ve had some key revelations in the last few years. From the Facebook mood experiments, Cambridge Analytica and Russian meddling in the 2016 election. It all adds up to a troubling picture of what we can expect from all that spying. And yes, government intelligence agencies are spying on you too. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know about the porous relationship between government spy agencies and all the major data collection firms, including Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple as well as the major telecom carriers.

Cambridge AnalyticaFrom Prediction to Control

In 2014, data scientists at Facebook and Cornell University published a Facebook-user emotional manipulation study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The academic study is widely known as the Facebook mood experiments. The experiments that involved almost a million Facebook users proved what we probably already knew. People’s emotions can be manipulated through social media news-feeds, it proved that anger gets clicks and engagement online. What it tells ad-revenue businesses like Facebook and Google is that there are financial incentives to keeping you angry so you stay engaged, and exposed to more advertisers. Political outrage and fear are efficient revenue generators online. The new tools of advertising are no longer simply interested in prediction, it’s now influencing your behavior by exerting emotional control.

Cambridge Analytica was the tech story of 2018, and taught us that it’s not just the commercial marketplace that is interested in the tools of behavioral influence. Whistle-blower Chris Wylie called Cambridge Analytica’s method of matching your psychographic profile with tailored ads and content: “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool." The revelation however, was not that Cambridge Analytica acted illegally. The agency did not hack or exploit a data breach as was initially reported. Cambridge Analytica merely used the tools of modern digital advertising and applied it to an election campaign. The techniques used by the British ad agency are based on standard practices for any online marketing professional. But Cambridge Analytica used these techniques in a less than ethical manner.

The Facebook mood experiments and Cambridge Analytica stories have already passed through the news-cycle, and a congressional inquest without new regulations or changes in practices. It was no surprise when congressional investigators uncovered the depth of what they initially called Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential election. The evidence painted a picture of shadowy firms in Russia that weren’t simply funding pro-Donald Trump ads. They were using many of the same methods as Cambridge Analytica in an effort to destabilize the country by calling into question the legitimacy of its institutions. Former state department adviser on digital responses to terrorism, Jonathon Morgan said:

“The broader Russian strategy is pretty clearly about destabilizing the country by focusing on and amplifying existing divisions, rather than supporting any one political party. I think it absolutely continues.”

The Filter Bubble

Social Media Filter BubbleWhatever social or political issue you show interest in online, the Internet will wrap you in a soft, warm blanket of confirmation bias, to keep you engaged so you see more ads. It’s called a “filter bubble”, and it's used by search engines and social media to present what it thinks is most relevant to your profile. The result is intellectual isolation and outrage.

Follow a personality online that expresses views on the center-left or center-right, and whatever platform your using will nudge you toward content with ideologically adjacent views, just one step further down a rabbit hole. Within a few clicks you could find yourself deep inside radical, hate-filled renditions of what you have already been viewing. Complicated or nuanced heterodox views aren’t encouraged by online platforms, simply because there’s advertising money to made feeding you outrage and fear online. The dollar-value of advertiser engagement lends the Internet a gravitational pull toward the worst case scenario. So, even if there weren’t hostile parties buying ads intended to skew your perspective, we’re radicalizing ourselves because of the private spying-for-advertising industry.

The most popular Internet platforms are pushing us all toward a binary in our social/political views. Pew Research has been tracking the divide, and America’s political polarization is gaining steam. We no longer simply disagree with each other on issues, we now see the other side as dangerous enemies intent on destroying the country. And that’s harmful in a representative democracy. Democracy was invented on the civil discourse of the town square, it only works through rhetorical discussion and compromise. Today’s search and social media are not town squares, they’re lucrative battlegrounds for psychological warfare.

Pew Political Polarization  

How Can We Protect Ourselves

When it comes to online spying and manipulation - knowing is the first step.

Complicated or nuanced heterodox views aren’t encouraged by online platforms, simply because there’s advertising money to made feeding you outrage and fear online.

People who spend hours a day online are getting numb to it. Terms like "clickbait" have already entered the lexicon because of awareness. The word implies skepticism and it's a hopeful sign that we may be growing out of an Internet adolescence. You can already see it in the younger generation on various sub-Reddits where sarcastic, digitally savvy youngsters make fun of us oldlings and our terrible Facebook memes. While they’re getting a laugh, sometimes at the expense of middle-aged slacktivists spreading unfunny ideological messages, they’re showing remarkable skepticism and wit by peeling away the bullshit that gets their weird uncle up in arms.

But perhaps it’s naive to think everyone will naturally grow out of believing in one-sided, ideologically-convenient fake news stories. As voters in a democracy, we need to be concerned with privacy, the ills of today's Internet begins with behavioral data collection. The negative outcomes of surveillance is a bipartisan issue we should all agree upon. It's time for 21st century lawmakers to rethink ethical definitions for privacy and personal data. Is it time to revamp Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996?

Practice Privacy Hygiene

On a personal level, there is plenty you can do to secure your personal data. Your first steps could include using the Firefox browser with its Do Not Track feature enabled, and using the DuckDuckGo search engine. Neither will track, store or share your activity. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been a top nonprofit on the forefront of online privacy, free speech and civil rights in the digital domain since the 1990s. The EFF can also help you to take political action. 

Controversial YouTuber, The Hated One has many instructional videos about online privacy. His introduction to the DuckDuckGo search engine could change how you view browsing the Internet. DuckDuckGo was founded by Gabriel Weinberg, who became a digital marketing guru when he wrote his book, Traction, on the ethical online marketing framework called Bullseye. 

Google vs. DuckDuckGo

For this article, I asked Toronto privacy expert, Dr. Ann Cavoukian, how she believes we can rollback the damage of constant surveillance. She says the answer probably lies in decentralization of data. Dr. Cavoukian’s Privacy by Design framework mandates that personal identifiers not be included at the point of any data collection. Adding decentralization means all personal data you voluntarily surrender would be stored as separate data-sets, so that no one database holds the complete picture on your activities or anything that can identify you personally. Promising technologies like blockchain are already solving issues around database security. Unfortunately, decentralizing data will be a challenge in today’s digital advertising platform duopoly of Google and Facebook.

FB PrivacyAs the 5G roll-out is underway it’s a critical time to make a stand for online privacy. There's currently a public will to see lawmakers do their job regulating big data in a meaningful way, rather than enabling them to continue violating our privacy. Facebook was recently rewarded with a $22.5-billion valuation increase by investors after it announced it will receive a relative wrist slap of a fine for violations of consent decree from the FTC. The FTC unwittingly adding value to Facebook shareholders, when it was supposed to punish it for privacy violations, clearly demonstrates that current laws are ill-prepared to take online privacy seriously.

If projects like Sidewalk Toronto are any indication, municipalities worldwide will bring the automated data collection we experience online into the real world. We could be facing a dystopic surveillance state, or we can make our voices for privacy heard and move toward more ethical information technologies online and outside.

Liberty is your freedom to while privacy is your freedom from, real freedom requires both.


About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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