Is Privacy Dead? Part 1: How you're tracked
Originally published on 08-12-2017 18:00
I love Betteridge's Law of Headlines as much as the next guy, but the answer here is more complex. In this post I'll discuss current privacy issues in the current era, leaks and the extent of tracking. Warning: This is somewhat long.
In Part 2 I'll be discussing methods to limit online tracking and protect your privacy. Stay tuned!
To answer the question: For ordinary people who aren't aware of the problem or ignore it, yes. For the rest, it's more of a zombie or comatose patient these days. I believe this stems from two root causes: the technophobia and laziness to learn new things that many people have, and manipulation by governments and corporations.
Let's face it. A lot of people unfortunately have no desire to learn anything about how their world works, or are even actively against it. Others are scared in case they break something, or scared of the highly technologically-oriented world we live in. We can go down the rabbit hole of finding the causes for these things, but that would require a wholly new article to supplement this one.
I'm not qualified to speak on the condition of education and ambition worldwide. I'd speculate however that it has to do with quality of life and an environment that encourages or discourages learning and exploration of new concepts. What I am qualified to speak about is that technological knowledge is not a niche thing anymore. Basic use of phones and computers is required in modern life.
Most middle-class jobs are either removed or severely limited if you remove technology out of the process. This generation's children might be far more capable than the last at using tech, but not always. It takes concerted effort to guide people in the right direction.
Then there's the governments and corporations. I'm no hippy and these entities exist for good reasons and do bring a lot of value, but in the process we've also let ourselves be manipulated. A 2013 documentary by the name of Terms and Conditions May Apply (highly recommended) highlights what has happened to erode our privacy since the late 90s and early 2000s. It can be summarised in two points.
How you're tracked
- First, nobody reads the End User License Agreements anymore and blindly accept anything in those documents, which enables the service providers to track anything and everything about user behavior.
- Second, intelligence entities like the NSA have forced their way into the data stores of the big tech companies (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and others). As of writing this there is mass surveillance legislation in the Netherlands that is about to be passed that will enable the Dutch government to spy on its citizens just as effectively as the US.
This problem isn't just in the US and Netherlands however. All participating nations in the "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance and its extensions of Six, Nine, and Fourteen Eyes and other such groups have some sort of surveillance.
Things like the Snowden leaks and others have shown us how large the problem has already become. Every single move you make is tracked by online systems. "Incognito Mode" doesn't apply here. Either your data (personal, usage patterns or otherwise) is tracked by surveillance agencies or the service providers themselves. This is true in most cases whether you pay for the service or not. Generally however, the following saying applies: "If you aren't paying for the product, you are the product".
If you still don't believe me, I'll give you an example that applies to YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. To start, it is important to differentiate the "Echo Chamber Algorithm" as I like to call it and the more nefarious application of it in tracking you.
What is the "Echo Chamber Algorithm"?
Ever notice how, on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, the more you consume a certain niche of content and feed likes and dislikes into the system, the more of that content you'll see pop up over other types? For example, if you open Eurobeat music and car video memes for a week straight, your YouTube home page will then be filled with those things (first hand experience).
If you dislike certain content, you'll eventually start to see less and less of it. This also applies to the kind of advertisements you see on these platforms, otherwise known as targeted advertising. Makes sense from the business perspective as you'll have a much higher rate of sales hooks.
The reasoning for this is pretty obvious, but has downsides. You'll see far more of the type of content you like, which is great, but variety of opinion will be stifled.
This creates an ideological echo chamber because when it comes to news and information, it boxes people in and feeds them only content that they'd agree with. Thus, opinion trenches dig deeper and deeper the more you are fed by the algorithms. No one is truly safe from this unless you only consume content on these services while not having an account to be tracked on (and in some cases, even without one you can be tracked).
What's wrong with all this? I have nothing to hide, so why should I care?
This ties into the previous point about your data being collected by entities without your consent. Remember the Equifax breach a few months ago? Most people with information on their systems had not explicitly given their information to Equifax. Equifax obtained it through third parties, who might have also obtained it from other third parties, and so on.
"Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say" - Edward Snowden
You don't care about your privacy until you do, and you'll have nowhere to turn at that point. At the very least, you should care on a security level for protecting your information from malicious people. More entities with your data means more points of failure. Even the tightest security has flaws. More points of failure means higher risk of failure.
Then, you should also care because of incompetency, by those who store the data (again, security) and those who view it (corporate, government). Surveillance programs have shot up in number and grown greatly in scale, yet we still have a seemingly growing number of domestic and "regular" (I hesitate to use the term regular here) terrorism incidents every year worldwide. "Pray for x" isn't a solution, and surveillance clearly isn't either.
At some point, all the data the surveillance agencies have actually detriments the amount of valuable information they have. You can't just search through it as if it were Google and only find the criminals. Machine Learning (for that is the proper name for what is called Artificial Intelligence these days) is also not sophisticated enough where we could trust it 100% as if we were in an episode of Person of Interest.
Facebook has recently claimed that their AI blocks 99% of terrorist content, but also specifies that their tool is not perfect. It cannot take into account regional content that might seem suspicious to the outside but isn't, and isn't fully able to discern the eccentricities of different languages. Will it eventually get to the point where it can reliably be trusted in almost all cases, in other applications? Possibly. But we don't know how far away that is.
I don't have social media/Gmail/etc accounts. This all doesn't affect me.
Yes it does. What you likely didn't know is that every single website that includes a social media share button allows those platforms to track you as well, through browser cookies. Look those up if you want to know more.
Other examples of tracking
- Gmail reads through your emails and on the mobile version suggests automatic responses based on content. Again, this has pros and cons. It'll warn you if you send an email saying something about attachments in it when you forgot to attach the files. But you're still giving information about you to Google in your "private" email conversations.
- Google tracks your location even when your device GPS is off.
- Many of your apps request a lot more permissions from your device than they need to in order to function. This is because they can use that data and sell it to third party advertisers or use it as part of their own tracking. In several cases the fringe permissions to have a valid reason however.
I'm not saying corporations, surveillance agencies and governments are evil. Far from that. They provide valuable services to all of us. However an obsession with obtaining more and more information combined with our current rapid pace of innovation and the slowness of governments to react has led not to an Orwellian Nightmare from 1984, but rather Huxley's Brave New World where we drown in the ocean of data and distraction.
I'm also not saying "fight back" like some revolutionary. This is a choice to be made by the individual on whether or not they want to continue giving up everything about themselves to the entities. Considering the amount of profiles and information you could likely find on me alone, I'm no saint in this regard. I'm of the opinion that the best option is not to try and remove your information from the internet or not use the internet at all, but rather limit what is visible to be tracked.