By Lloyd Marino
Imagine a dystopia where everything you do is monitored. One in which your every move is tracked through a GPS. A device on your car records every tollbooth you pass. Your shopping patterns are constantly analyzed. Your emails are stored and correspondence recorded. Every Internet search is tracked. And your bookstore measures what and how much you read.
Guess what? This isn’t some George Orwell fiction. It’s our world, right now. And for the most part we’ve done it to ourselves, willingly.
Your cell phone tracks your nearest cell tower. It has to do this in case you get a call. If your smartphone has a GPS, it can track your exact location—how else can its navigation app give you directions?
Want to speed through toll booths? An EZ-PASS eliminates the need to wait in lines. But for the EZ-Pass to automate your tolls, it has to track your car and what roads you travelled.
Want to save money at the grocery store? Grocery affinity cards give you lower prices in return for allowing the store to link your purchases with your identity. Amazon works the same way with its Kindle, remembering where you left off in each book so you can continue reading on another device. The same is true for Gmail and other online email services. And virtually all websites track which articles you read and how much time you spend on each page so they can sell advertising and keep the website free.
In each case we willingly exchange our personal information, relinquishing our privacy, in exchange for convenience, access to websites, or saving money. This isn’t Big Brother government monitoring—it’s using data as currency in private exchanges. We’re trading bits of personal privacy for services in the same way that we trade our time watching commercials for free broadcast television.
Yes, there are ways to reduce this surveillance on ourselves. But few of us are willing to give up our cell phones and EZ-Passes. Few of us use encryption on our email or deactivate the tracking cookies in our browsers. We accept the trade off with these observers. It’s convenient that Amazon notifies us of a new book by our favorite author or Siri tells us when we need to leave to get to our doctor’s appointment. And we’ve decided to trust these companies with our data.
As data storage becomes less and less expensive, more companies will increase the mound of data they amass in the hopes they can find a profitable use for it. Using big data tools, they can sift through the information and find connections, so even using disposable email address and pseudonyms will not protect your privacy. Consumers and those who regulate the Internet need to take steps to ensure that people do not sell their privacy too cheaply; that we continue to receive new services and tools in exchange.
For instance, wouldn’t be great if a smart fridge produced your shopping list, notified local grocery stores, picked the store with the lowest total price, and worked with Siri to make an appointment for you for a pick up. Would that be worth sacrificing some privacy? If you don’t agree, you don’t have to use it.
This constant monitoring has begun to change society. Studies show younger generations have much less concern for privacy and are much more willing to share data. People overshare life’s most intimate moments on social media—even revealing details about their sex lives and drug use ( A pioneering study by researchers at the Freie Universität in Berlin found that those who reveal too much on Facebook have heightened activity in the regions of the brain relating to self-cognition). Foursquare and Swarm let people electronically check into their current location so their friends (and anyone who buys the data) can know where they are. As more millennials, the nation’s largest demographic group, ascend into leadership, we can expect less concern for privacy and an assumption that those who cling to it are standing in the way of benefits that come from computers—and businesses—knowing more about us.
In our debates over privacy—at least among those of us who still make it an issue—we must distinguish between overt and indirect surveillance. Overt surveillance directly targets specific people, as when a private detective follows a suspected adulterer or the police hunt for a suspect.
Far more common—and less invasive—is indirect surveillance such as checking the price of a shoe on Amazon and then seeing an ad for that very product the next time you visit the New York Times website. This retargeting is part of companies’ efforts to present advertising to the people most likely to buy their wares. We’ll soon see that principle applied to other websites—showing you the videos you are most likely to watch, content from the blogs you favor, and news based on what you’ve clicked on in the past. Today, indirect surveillance tracks everything, even our daily habits, including when we wake up, our commute to work, and our TV viewing habits via a network of interconnected systems, forming what NBC news characterized as “a picture of your day in disturbingly high fidelity.”
Yes, this is surveillance, but it is surveillance that helps both sides. Advertisers, merchants, and websites benefit, but so do consumers. Otherwise, we would not use the products or become more inclined to pay more directly to use sites without tracked ads.
Not all forms of surveillance are evil—just ask those children who accept Santa’s knowing if they’ve been good or bad in return for presents on Christmas morning.
Image By: Farzad Nazifi