Which is more worrisome or dangerous – the snooping, collecting, and archiving of information by the likes of GCHQ or the NSA… or Google? A pertinent and prescient piece in The Guardian argues that Google and its ilk may pose the biggest threat to privacy. For all their repugnant surveillance practices, at least the government agencies are somewhat regulated. Google, meanwhile, has unbridled access to our lives.
The article maintains from the outset that,
“We are being watched 24x7x365 by machines running algorithms that rummage through our digital trails and extract meaning (and commercial opportunities) from them.”
This unregulated surveillance (referred to as “surveillance capitalism”) is more pervasive and insidious than that of the GCHQ or the NSA. What is scary is that it is done with our acquiescence, however unwitting that may be.
Even scarier is that we have no idea what the long-term implications of this will be for our societies – or for us as citizens. At least when communicating through traditional means, our correspondences may be scooped up to be stored, and may be looked at later. In the case of Google and Facebook, you can rest assured it will be sifted through and monetized.
The extent of the surveillance that we meekly allow is staggering in its scope and scale. There are nearly two billion people active on Facebook every day. Then there are the 3.5 billion searches that people type every day into Google. All this activity is leaving digital trails that are logged, stored, and analyzed.
For example, research shows that Facebook “likes” can be used to “automatically and accurately predict a range of personal attributes including sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age and gender”. I may be wrong, but the kinds and amount of information that can be harvested by these platforms are much greater and deeper than anything GCHQ or the NSA can glean from their probing.
The article allows that we may be aware that we are exposing ourselves by our activity and searches on the internet, but are woefully ignorant of the implications. It directs the reader to an interesting new website – Social Cooling – which illustrates the way social media assembles a “data mosaic” about each user. It shows how data extracted from our activity can paint a portrait – not always a pretty one – of our digital lives, and can reveal things about us that we probably don’t want to be known.
In this regard, social media can be cruelly effective at gauging intimate things about our lives. Did you know, for example, that who your “friends” are on Facebook may at some point determine your ability to get a mortgage or a bank loan? Or that your searches about physical ailments and maladies could be a goldmine of information in the hands of someone making decisions about your insurance premiums?
If you were aware of this beforehand, it might alter your search choices, or who you “friend.” And these are only the material aspects of your internet activity that can affect your everyday life. There is other information which, when divulged and digested, could make your life miserable. We’re not just talking about someone discerning your sexual orientation or preferences, but things like whether you’re a rape victim, had an abortion, or are addicted to, or are abusing, substances. How’s that job prospect looking now?
We rail (rightly) against government surveillance, but shouldn’t we also be concerned about what we are putting out to the world through our internet activity and posts? I think the answer is pretty clear – especially since no one knows where the internet intrusion is heading, or just how insidious it will become in our lives. As was pointed out, it is regulated only by its avaricious desire for more profit – meaning there is no external oversight.
You may think, as is the case with government surveillance, “So what? I’ve got nothing to hide.” But, in fact, we all have some things, not necessarily criminal, that we don’t necessarily want out there. Yet, unwittingly, we are doing that very thing – every single day. Be careful out there!
Editor’s note: Please check out our Ultimate Online Privacy Guide for tips on how to protect your privacy online.