Sunday, May 19, 2013


People have long feared the government invading their privacy and knowing too much about them. The concept of an Orwellian "1984"-style big brother state is almost a cliché, and Americans in particular have been very sensitive to this idea. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the loss of privacy in the US has become a much bigger deal as laws such as the Patriot Act provide the government with greater tools for privacy invasion than ever before. This loss of privacy and civil liberties has been noticed and condemned by many, but a large number of Americans have also supported the changes to a large degree due to fear and a need for the government to make them feel safe.

Despite all of this, a new, even larger threat to privacy has emerged in the last few years that everyone across   the globe should be concerned about, since it is rapidly gaining the ability to invade our privacy in ways that the government probably never even dreamed of, and it's happening right under our own noses. We're all aware of it to some degree, but very few people seem to be aware of just how widespread the problem already is, and how much worse it's going to get.

I'm talking about the rise of private companies collecting, using, and selling mountains of data about who we are, where we are, what we do, and who we do it with.

The user is the product

We've entered the age of Big Data, where many companies are collecting huge quantities of information about us, data mining it for their own uses, or selling it on to third parties. Google is probably the most well known example, with Facebook in second place. These companies make no secret of the fact that we, the seeming users of their products, are actually the product. 

Google collects lots of different types of data, from search requests, to location information (on Android devices or using apps like Google Search on iPhone), to browsing history. All of this helps it to provide better services, which is a plus for us, but it's all in aid of the way they actually make their money, by providing advertising with higher click through rates because it can better predict what ads we will click on, or by selling this sort of information on to interested third parties.

Facebook is the same. Their entire business model is based on collecting information about us, our social links, the things we talk about, all so it can sell this data to companies that want to better target us with advertising and offers.

These companies, and many others, are hooking into our online habits as much as possible in order to build more and more comprehensive profiles of who we are. If you use a program such as the Ghostery browser plug-in, you can see the sheer number of third party scripts that run on most of your web pages. As a simple example, I saw 8 different ones when I went to What this means is that, even if you don't use Google or Facebook, they have scripts on many of the web pages you visit which track information about what you do. This is useful data even if they don't know who you are, but thanks to the many different sources of information available to them, they can often link different sources of data together to figure out who someone is (this link gives a simple example of the sort of things that are possible).

Data collecting in the real world

Things don't stop with the online world. There is plenty of data collection occurring in the real world. The obvious examples are credit cards and loyalty cards, all of which collect your purchasing information to sell on. But this isn't done in isolation of the virtual world. Companies are combining all of this information, both virtual world and real world, to build a more complete profile of your interests and purchasing habits.

For example, Facebook has a partnership with Datalogix where your real word purchases in brick and mortar stores are collected (through the credit and loyalty cards), and then compared against the ads that you were shown on Facebook. This means that even if you don't click on a single banner ad, they can still track whether or not you ended up buying the products shown to you, i.e. they can still tell if the advertising was effective!

A company in Perth known as Inhouse Insights has been deploying technology that picks up the MAC address on your mobile phone when you enter and leave stores in order to track how long people spend in stores to help gauge the effectiveness of sales and so on. I don't know how many other companies are exploring similar avenues, but I'm sure these guys aren't the only ones.

The scary present/future

As if all of these forms of tracking and data collection weren't enough, it's the next steps by Google (and I'm sure other companies will follow) that really take it to the next level.

Privacy concerns have already been raised surrounding Google Glass. Here we have a set of glasses with an integrated video camera and a connection to Google's servers. It's not clear at this point exactly what information Google will be siphoning through these things, but the possibilities are worrying. Sure, we can already take fairly discreet photos and video if we want with cell phones and mini cameras, but these are limited in impact and isolated. Think of society if you have thousands or millions or people walking around with cameras and microphones strapped to their heads. You can usually tell when someone is using their phone to take a picture, but this is not the case with Google Glass. People will be wearing them all the time and we will stop noticing them, yet your voice and picture could be getting recorded at any time.

Now, imagine if Google decides to start capturing data of where the user is at any time and what they are seeing. Not only do they collect lots of useful data about the user, but also about the people they are looking at, without their consent or knowledge. Assuming that the glasses are intended to recognize people that the user knows in order to give useful contextual information to the user, this means that they will also be providing Google with useful information about people around the user. 

And then comes the Google autonomous cars. These cars are just being trialled on roads in Nevada, Florida, and California at the moment, but this will of course expand in the future, like Google Glass, once they become an actual product. But, even now, there is a fleet of these vehicles driving around, slurping up data. The sophisticated sensors on these cars collect many different kinds of data, and again they are connected to Google's servers. So, again like with the glasses, imagine when there are thousands or millions of these cars driving around, collecting data about the drivers, about what the cars see around them, including recognizing other cars and pedestrians. Concerns have rightfully been raised about the privacy violations that this technology can cause.

Some people like to think that Google is a company interested in doing good, and making the world a better place. This may in fact be true, but even if so, it doesn't negate the fact that Google is a publicly traded, for-profit company that primarily generates revenue from serving ads. This will always give it a strong incentive to violate privacy and sell data. Google has a long history of being quite secretive and protective of its own data and information, but showing very little restraint when faced with opportunities to collect other people's information. The collection of wifi data from homes and businesses by the Google Street View cars is one such example amongst many. And their blatant hypocrisy leaves you worrying just how likely they are to ever reign themselves in and not exploit every chance at collecting data on people in the future.

The surveillance state

So, in the end, we now have private companies collection information about us that governments would dream of having. And it's all just to sell us shit. All of this loss of privacy is not to make us safer or to catch criminals or anything noble like that. It's so companies like Google can serve us relevant ads so we buy more crap from their customers, the companies that pay for the ads. Sure, we get some benefit from this, such as more relevant search results, but the two don't have to be connected. It should be possible to collect data and only use it for benevolent reasons without selling it off or trying to manipulate the users and their spending habits. But the primary purpose of publicly traded companies is to maximize returns to their shareholders, so moral and ethical behaviour is generally going to fall by the wayside, which is exactly what we're seeing.

And now, governments don't need to go to the trouble to try and collect private information about us. They just request companies like Google to hand it over to them. Or they can look at purchasing data from data collection companies.

It seems kind of pathetic that in the end our privacy will disappear not because of an oppressive police state, but so some rich assholes in Silicon Valley can make money serving us ads for shoes.

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