Over the last six years or so, we have discovered that our lives online are not as private as we believed. News articles have exposed data collection efforts by the government and companies we rely on in our everyday lives and so much so that it is impossible to avoid. The government and these companies read our emails, track our purchases both online and offline, run our phones’ operating systems, and more.
In 2013, Edward Snowden released documents through the press detailing efforts by the United States government to spy on its citizens (Gellman & Soltani, 2013; Perlroth, Larson, & Shane, 2013). The National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on citizens through phone and internet and collecting the metadata. Prior to this, there was an assumption of anonymity on the internet.
While the release of the NSA documents made citizens aware of governmental spying, it was not until later were we aware of spying and data collection by the companies we trust online. The Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 was the point at which people became more aware of the extent of not just government spying and data collection, but that of the companies we use every day on the internet (Granville, 2018).
According to author Scott Galloway in his book The Four, the largest of these companies comprise Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon. In his book, Galloway describes the companies as parts of the body, Google as the head, Facebook as the heart, Amazon as the gut, and Apple as the reproductive organs.
Galloway describes Google similarly to What Algorithms Want, which describes, “The algorithmic quest for universal knowledge mirrors and feeds our own eternal hunger for self-knowledge and collective awareness,” (Finn, 2017, p. 49). This quest for knowledge and to be the source of that knowledge is why Google is described by Galloway as the head.
Facebook is described as the heart because it is about emotion and connection. Galloway says, “Facebook’s genius was not just in giving us yet another place on the web to establish our identities, but also the tools to enable us to enrich that presentation—and to reach out to others in our circle,” (Galloway, 2018, p. 171). Where old websites and programs such as America Online (AOL) and Myspace failed, Facebook excelled (and bought or tanked any competitors).
Amazon fills our desire for stuff, which we are consistently encouraged to buy more of. According to Galloway, “Consumption has taken the place of shared sacrifice during times of war and economic malaise,” (Galloway, 2018, p. 16). This desire for stuff and consumption is why Amazon is the gut of the body.
Galloway ends with Apple as the reproductive organs. He states, “The lust for Apple-branded goods has given the company its cult-like status. People who belong to this cult pride themselves on their hyperrational choice to buy Apple products…they consider themselves “geniuses,” illuminati, foot soldiers in the Apple crusade to think different and change the world. Most of all, they think it makes them cool,” (Galloway, 2018, p. 172). This lust and love affair with Apple by Apple fanatics are why Galloway categorizes the brand as the reproductive organs.
These four companies monopolize the digital sphere and command so much of the market that we are increasingly unable to avoid using these services. For instance, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android smartphones, together own just shy of 100% of the market (International Data Corporation, 2017).
We allow and have allowed all of this data collection to happen because, as What Algorithms Want states, “The algorithm offers us salvation, but only after we accept its terms of service,” (Finn, 2017, p. 9). We gave up our privacy for these services to make our lives easier and more convenient and we did it by always accepting the terms of service.
However, we are unable to stop accepting the terms of service. There is no way to opt out anymore. Unlike in the past where we could choose to not have email or a computer, this choice is more and more difficult. We are no longer able to make that decision. We have to utilize these services and The Four are increasingly our only options.
It is not only The Four that are our options. The data collection goes deeper. It includes our medical devices (Kravitz & Allen, 2018). Data from devices such as my father’s heart pacemaker and defibrillator can be shared with advertisers and insurance companies. Insurance companies can then make decisions on insurance prices based on that information (Kravitz & Allen, 2018).
Radical Technologies states, “…we are straightforwardly trading our privacy for convenience,” which is true, but at a certain point we are unable to choose otherwise (Greenfield, 2018, p. 29). We are unable to choose to stop trading our privacy for the use of these services because these services are increasingly the only services available.
These services are also entering our homes and cars. There are smart fridges, ovens, thermostats, etc. and cars with Bluetooth connectivity and maps. At what point are we going to be unable to opt out and choose a non-connected device?
Radical Technologies asks a great question: “…what happens when datasets harvested by institutions we trust pass into other, less benevolent hands—as history suggests they demonstrably and reliably do, whether through systems intrusion, corporate acquisition, or simple human clumsiness,” (Greenfield, 2018, p. 56)? There is a lot of data being collected and possibly more than we know. We should be worried about who has our data and for what purpose it is being used.
As Radical Technologies points out, “The price of connection is vulnerability, always and in every context, and it is no different here: every single device that is connected to the network offers an aperture, a way in, what the security community calls an ‘attack vector’,” (Greenfield, 2018, p. 43). Worries about our data should not only extend to the collection of our data and its use, but also to the vulnerability of that data.
What is the future of this data collection and privacy invasion if we do nothing? We may have a glimpse already. According to an article from Quatzy, Westworld may an exploration of our modern issue in a future setting (Epstein, 2018). In the show (Spoiler Alert), the park of Westworld is collecting the DNA and experiences of the park guests without their knowledge. This collection of data is a core aspect of the business model of the company. Could that be the next step of Facebook?
What about the future of Google? What Algorithms Want mentions Star Trek and its LCARS system, which is, “…an index to all human knowledge, a library with an intelligent digital agent which can parse any spoken query and deliver relevant information back,” (Finn, 2017, p. 67). The book argues that Google is attempting to emulate this system. Thinking about the similarities between the systems, is it possible that the two are already similar in that they are both tracking private data and Google could achieve the superior system that LCARS is?
Star Trek is meant to be a utopian future and it could be, but is it also a glimpse into a dystopian future where privacy does not exist? The LCARS system tracks its users from inquires to opening doors to use of the holodeck and holodeck programs. Maybe we should be worried about what Google could become if What Algorithms is correct in comparing it with Star Trek and the LCARS system. Do we really want to live under a surveillance state? Are we okay with that?
When I was a child, the internet was new. Personal computers (PCs) were becoming more and more affordable and more people were able to purchase one. It was an internet of bulletin boards and chat rooms. America Online became king.
I learned early on from parents who are naturally overly cautious to be careful of “stranger danger” on the internet. They read articles and watched news reports on how to stay safe on the internet and passed on that information to me. I knew to be careful about giving descriptions of myself, my location, and what I said because not only were there predators, but the internet was forever.
I navigated those early years with an abundance of caution and that informed the way I always approached my safety and privacy on the internet. I knew what I said in the public sphere that was not under privacy settings could be seen by anyone.
When the Edward Snowden reports came out, I was shocked. It made me worried about everything I did and said in phone conversations and on the internet. I thought, at that time, it was only the government.
Later, when we all found out it was also the companies like The Four, I was really upset. Unlike the government, who should be prevented by law from spying on its citizens, these companies went around those laws through terms of services. We agreed to those terms of services not knowing what we were really agreeing to. We found out it was our privacy that we were giving away.
Knowing what I know now about connected devices and their ability to collect data, it is scary to imagine what other data is out there about me. What do these companies know? It makes me more cognizant of what I say and do online, even more than I already was after growing up with parents who were unrelenting in their message of internet safety.
I watch commercials all the time for connected devices such as the Nest thermostat or a smart fridge or stove. I watch those commercials and I am acutely aware of the dangers they pose as well as the convenience. It would be awesome to click a button and turn off the stove, have the thermostat know when to heat the house or cool it off, or have the fridge tell me I need more milk. But what if any of them were hacked? Baby monitors have been hacked and, as Radical Technologies points out, any connection is vulnerable (Greenfield, 2018, p. 43). What could a hacker do if they were able to hack a gas stove?
I worry about the future and what I can do to stop this erosion of privacy. I do what I can to spread the word and, until we stop the invasion of privacy, be cognizant of what I say and do on the internet, fully aware that it is likely being collected by these companies.
Epstein, A. (2018, April 30). “Westworld” is Facebook in 50 years. Retrieved from https://qz.com/quartzy/1265812/westworld-is-a-giant-data-collection-operation-just-like-facebook/
Finn, E. (2017). What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing. MIT Press.
Galloway, S. (2018). The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Penguin.
Gellman, B., & Soltani, A. (2013, December 4). NSA tracking cellphone locations worldwide, Snowden documents show. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nsa-tracking-cellphone-locations-worldwide-snowden-documents-show/2013/12/04/5492873a-5cf2-11e3-bc56-c6ca94801fac_story.html
Granville, K. (2018, March 19). Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: What You Need to Know as Fallout Widens. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/19/technology/facebook-cambridge-analytica-explained.html
Greenfield, A. (2018). Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. London: Verso.
International Data Corporation. (2017). Smartphone OS. Retrieved from https://www.idc.com/promo/smartphone-market-share/os
Kravitz, D., & Allen, M. (2018, November 21). Your Medical Devices Are Not Keeping Your Health Data to Themselves. Retrieved from https://www.propublica.org/article/your-medical-devices-are-not-keeping-your-health-data-to-themselves
Perlroth, N., Larson, J., & Shane, S. (2013, September 5). N.S.A. Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/06/us/nsa-foils-much-internet-encryption.html?hp&_r=0