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Tech Companies Take Your Private Data for Their Profit

By Paul Nutcher

A smart phone now stays in a users hands longer than the device is beneficial. Out of its holster, their user thumbs its glass to share photos, their children’s names, locations, vacation destinations, illnesses and even their emotions over websites across the Internet. All of this online activity is tracked by technology companies and the user’s data is stored so it can be plugged into an algorithm for use by a third-party. Even ones face on a security camera recording, snoring data from medical devices, hidden microphones in home security systems and your unstocked refrigerator are feeding data to algorithms so tech companies can predict your behavior. In the age of the Internet of things, your data is gold. Once mined and processed you are fed advertising and reviews just as you’re about to make a buying decision: from tennis shoes to hernia surgery; or, a nudge that you are almost out of milk or in need of a lower dose of your prescription medicine. Phone apps feed you notifications that are designed to provide the same instant gratification that addicts gamblers to slot machines. All of this is possible with today’s technology and most app users and website visitors opt-in because it seems convenient to do so. However, this vast collection of human data is not considered for the good of mankind by everyone.

The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism

Experts are calling these forms of nudging our behavior a form of surveillance and the data held by so few at the top of the wealth scale a form of capitalism on steroids, whether it is influencing our voting decision toward a particular political candidate or giving our favorite restaurant a five-star rating. Experts such as Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, claims that no matter how careful the user of a device is there are processes going on out of sight from the user that are an invasion of privacy. She argues, data collection of online users’ behavior and other activities people reasonably believe is a private action should not be allowed.

Usually, the goal of data collection is to influence people to buy things by watching online behavior on apps and websites. However, surveillance today goes many steps beyond a user’s consent. People’s faces show their emotions via facial recognition programs, their mouse clicks record their likes and dislikes, and their movements through the physical world, including visits to shopping malls and even where a person eats lunch is being monitored and algorithms look for ways both the tech company and a third party, usually an advertiser, can make money off these personal activities. These are some of the ways information is collected by companies such as Facebook or Google. According to Zuboff, “It begins with these companies claiming our private human experience as their free source of raw material,” she said in a Channel 4 News interview. The raw material is data, which is sold to another company and that data can help predict a person’s behavior, Zuboff explained. They sell this information to advertisers that hope to influence a person into buying something.

            But there are potential existential threats. Surveillance-type online programs used by companies are a potential threat to democracy in the United States. Most of the data used by tech companies should be regulated with laws to protect people instead of the way it is taken from people today who have little knowledge of how it is used. The information is not harvested for the benefit of the users, Zuboff explains. “They are writing algorithms to mine our behavior to determine our inner thoughts,” she says. Not only is user data sold to another company that wants to sell something to people, it is willing to influence behavior to sell a product or service. The promise of the Internet as a tool to keep people educated — as the information superhighway was originally sold — cannot happen in a society that allows a few wealthy businessmen to know more about Americans than they know about themselves, and further, allow them to decide what we see and what they do not want us to see. This is already causing a large divide in information resources resulting in a system of inequality. Where there is inequality there is a threat to democracy. Giving mind control over to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is not conducive to self-governance by the people.

Conversely, critics of Zuboff argue that the user willingly agrees to allow their data to be sold to advertisers when they agree to the website’s privacy policy. They are willing accomplices to giving up their privacy in order to receive the power, benefits and convenience of the Internet in their hand. Still, these privacy agreements are too long to read and too difficult to understand so most people do not realize their data will be sold to another company, counters Zuboff, a distinguished Harvard professor, who spent seven years writing her more than 600-page book. She claims there are no ways for the average person to hide because many forms of electronic data collection are not noticed by unsuspecting smart phone users nor do they opt-in to the peering eyes of Silicon Valley. From cameras in city centers and computers in cars, there is no escape even if you wanted to be out from under this type of now commonplace surveillance apparatus.

But Are There Consumer Benefits

When all the data collection started, much of what is now used in algorithms was considered excess bits and bytes. It was stored in huge servers but never used. Fast-forward to today and some experts tout the ways data collection improves the human lives. Data collection can improve the human experience, according to Allan Storman, a blogger and senior content marketing manager for Oracle Data Cloud services wrote in his post: The Five Forgotten Benefits of Consumer Data You Need to Know. From improved consumer products to discount coupons, allowing companies to collect data about its users can be of benefit to society.

Data collection of a person’s online activity should be allowed to continue because there are many more benefits. Storman explained, people enjoy their time online when companies know that they will be interested in their products and services. “Data collection happens everywhere – in marketing, advertising, and consumer goods and services, as well as in broader areas such as public safety, health care, and energy conservation.” He said there are ways sales and marketing teams can use data to improve the relationship between the business and the customer. The potential of more personalized products and services is the overall benefit to people, Stormon said. Data helps the business find more efficient ways of reaching customers saving resources for the company. It benefits people by saving them time online because they will read only advertising that applies to them.

Further, data collection can help consumers save money. If a company knows you are interested in a pair of tennis shoes by your online activity, they can send you an electronic coupon to help you save money. There are other ways consumers can save money, for example, within the insurance industry, according to Stormon, “Consumer data allows carriers to more accurately price premiums and offer products and services timed to align with customers’ changing circumstances, such as retirement or purchasing a new home.” The data can also streamline buying transactions making life more convenient for customers, including automated prescription refills or scheduled maintenance needs for an air conditioner.

Lastly, online fraud can be reduced as data is collected. When an algorithm detects unusual patterns of online behavior, the company can intervene and prevent potential losses to its account holders. “Anyone who has received a notification from their credit card company about a suspicious transaction is in effect being protected by the same data used to receive a discount on purchases,” Stormon noted. The same goes for real time sensors often deployed by medical devices and transmitted to a healthcare professional, who can then intervene based on the data and potential avoid their patient suffering a catastrophic emergency. For example, doses of medications can be adjusted so heart attacks or strokes can be prevented. Stormon noted that it will be up to the companies collecting the data to make sure people continue to believe there is value added to their lives instead of intrusions and potential threats.

Big Tech On the Defensive

In a 2013 case, Google was held accountable for its Gmail practices when a class action lawsuit claimed its practices were violating federal and California privacy laws. According to an ABC News online report, Google was alleged to be violating privacy laws when its automated processor scaned emails sent from non-Gmail accounts. Google’s argument is publicly available for download at https://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/googlemotion061313.pdf  The court documents show Google wanted the lawsuit thrown out. While that is no surprise, a statement in the documents says that “a person has not legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.” That statement was from a 1997 court case and the citation was part of Google’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

The ABC News report futher explained that an industry source that works closely with Google said these practices are common with other email services at least for spam filtering and virus protection. Still, others interviewed for the report said Google goes beyond this and the content of Gmail messages were being mined for data and using it for “whatever purposes they want to do with it,” according to John Simpson, the director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. https://www.consumerwatchdog.org/newsrelease/google-tells-court-you-cannot-expect-privacy-when-sending-messages-gmail-people-who-care

The ABC News reporter also added Lorrie Cranor’s comments that machines may be the email readers but that is not the issue. It is “what could happen as a result of having your email read,” said Cranor, director of the privacy engineering master’s program at Carnegie Mellon University. Google does have a Gmail privacy policy that spells out what it does with data collected from its account users, and it allows them to opt-out of targeted advertising, but at the time of the court case, it did not divulge how it deals with messages that come from outside Google.

ABC News also discovered that work emails sent to Google emails were now subject to Google’s processing. Rachel Greenstadt, an assistant professor of computer science at Drexel University, added that forwarding emails to Gmail complicates the issue even further. “You sent an email to my Drexel account, but it got forwarded to my Gmail,” she said. “You had no idea that was going to happen, and now it’s subject to Gmail’s processing.”

If Google’s motion were to be denied and the court rules that Google’s practice does violate privacy laws, Simpson has some ideas for how the company could change. “Maybe they could use ads that aren’t based on reading your email,” he said. “Or they could just stop reading emails. There are a number of commercial services that are more amenable to privacy concerns.”

The case is being heard in the U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif. Regardless of where the legal decision falls, arguments like these will likely surface again. “There is a difference between user expectations and business practices,” said Cranor. “Just because every business may do it doesn’t mean that users know the things that are actually done. Ideally, the best choice is to give people the option to opt out.”

Protests Turn Violent When People Wait Centuries for Equality

By Paul Nutcher

      Many whites were appalled by the rioting, shooting of police officers, and burning down of property and businesses following the killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd. The officer, Derek Chauvin with the Minneapolis police was recorded on cell phone video placing his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes during an arrest. In the now viral video, Floyd stated, “I can’t breath” before his body went limp. Floyd was later pronounced dead at the hospital. The cause for his arrest was trying to use counterfeit money to buy cigarettes. Chauvin was fired and charged with 2nd degree murder and the three other officers who stood by and did nothing also were fired and charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. 

       For many African Americans, this homicide by police was another one too many deaths of an unarmed Black man and with good reason. Blacks are 2.5 times more likely to die in police custody than whites, according to a 2019 report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as posted on journalist.resources.org. So people took to the streets for a majority of peaceful protests against police brutality and called for reforms to the justice system. Other Blacks in recent years had been shot during traffic stops or subdued during arrests with chokeholds and ended up dead. In a show of empathy and support for the outrage nationwide, the protestors marched and held signs, saying: “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund The Police,” among others. All while, whites watching on TV focused on the several riots playing over and over again on the news and now they want their justice for the destroyed property and they demanded police file charges against the “thugs” (President Trump‘s word) who allegedly shot and killed police officers and burned down entire city blocks.

       While law abiding citizens did not and cannot condone these acts of violence on either side, the white community needs to better understand the source of frustration for African-Americans at the root of the looting and Molotov cocktails in order for the nation to heal. To hear them talk or read their posts on Facebook, it is clear that most whites are unaware that policing in America has been a tool of government oppression for centuries, working for the interests of wealthiest Americans – from plantation owners to current day one-percenters – and reforms are long overdue. Police have become overly militarized and warrior-like while citizens from all communities prefer the “protect and service” mottos on police patrol cars to mean they act as guardian of the peace in our communities. 

       Policing in the United States started as a means to track down run-away slaves. These police were called “paddy rollers” by slaves and were first formed in 1704 in Antebellum South Carolina. That is the legacy of policing in America. Little changed, however, even after Abolition. While the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery, the amendment contained a loophole for taking away freedom from slaves who committed a so called “crime.” (See Netflix documentary 13th) Many emancipated slaves lost their freedom due to this clause in the Constitution. So police found any old crime to arrest former slaves and in effect they were re-slaved in the plantations now called prisons. Some plantations were converted to working prisons: see The Marshall Project. Police effectively rounded up Blacks and charged them with trespassing or vagrancy – basically criminalized them for being homeless – because after they were given freedom many of them had no home, scattered family in most cases, and little or no money or prospects. Many Blacks tried to migrate north to escape the terror they endured from police, who in many southern states were also members of the KKK. If a freed slave was spotted by a local sheriff in a white community, they were often made an example of to other Blacks with lynchings and beatings with chains and whips. Southern whites who attended lynchings often cut off the fingers of the victims as souvenirs to be kept in a jar on a shelf at home.

       Further, Blacks who overcame the odds to become financially successful were also terrorized or even killed. Neighborhoods where freed slaves in the South were thriving were not safe from the blood-thirsty southern whites. Whole Black communities were destroyed by white mobs who did not want Blacks to be successful. One such racial atrocity was at the Black Wall Street massacre in Tulsa, Okalahoma, where 300 Blacks were slaughtered and their main street business section burned to the ground. 

        Eventually, these practices were exposed and most Southern states adopted a separate but equal doctrine, which were codified in the era of the Jim Crow laws. This led to systemic poverty for Black communities due to a lack of funding for books and better schools, inadequate healthcare and poor housing condition. During the Civil Rights era when activists tried to overturn segregation and racist laws, police used fire hoses on peaceful protesters and beat Blacks with batons, unleashed dogs on the activists including whites from the Northern states who had joined the movement.

       When this ended and Blacks were allowed to attend white schools and universities, politicians in Washington, D.C. promising law and order started yet another form of racial oppression with laws that led to mass incarceration of African-Americans. These laws included: the War on Drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, and 3 strikes you’re out laws. On the streets, police started the “broken window” and “stop and frisk” policing methods which meant arrests more often in poorer neighborhoods for relatively minor offenses, again trespassing or vagrancy. According to the Netflix documentary 13th, due to more than four decades of these over zealous laws one in three Black males has been incarcerated in their lifetime compared to one in 17 white males. Further, whites are also more likely to post bail to get out of jail after an arrest and until their trial on the charges. However, that is not always the same for Black males whose families cannot afford to make bail and even if they want to plead not guilty they are left in jail until they accept a plea bargain and in the process admit to a crime they may or may not have committed just to be sentenced to time served and released. These extended stays in jail or prison mean they often lose their housing and jobs and are given little or no preparation for life outside of the lockup. 

       In America’s neoliberalism experiment since the Reagan era all the way to the current President Trump, corporations with one-percenter shareholders have cashed in on this bonanza of abundant inmates in the form of privatized, for-profit prisons. America has 4 percent of the world’s population yet it incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. These prison owners not only hold African-Americans they also house Central American immigrants and refugees of color in detention centers where profits are more important than the safety of people and even children in the warden’s custody. So there is a class warfare element to this issue as many of the Blacks held in for-profit prisons are not only padding the pockets of one-percenters who utilize tax havens to avoid taxes, they put today’s prison population to work for other corporations providing cheap labor for American companies, from inmate-grown potatoes to inmate-manufactured car parts, mattresses and clothing – all for less than a dollar a week in pay. And their business plans are now including monitoring paroles and those in the warden’s custody on work or school release with geo-trackable ankle bracelets. It is no wonder some activists in Black neighborhoods say their communities are under occupation by the police state.  No wonder they say prison labor is the modern form of slave labor.

       In reality, after peeking behind the news reports of riots, nothing has really changed for so many inner-city Blacks in America who are living paycheck to paycheck hoping not to get sick or for their car to break down. Of course, burning down a Wendy’s in Atlanta does not change anything in terms of gaining police reforms and may even hurt their cause. Still, one can imagine after generation after generation of family members have seen the same oppressive system after oppressive system keep Blacks from equal treatment by our police and the justice system, they see protesting as the only way to get attention for their cause – a potential stepping stone toward change. The protestors are trying to get somebody to listen to them about equal treatment. They don’t want special treatment; they just want a system based on equality for all.

Obama BBQs For The Eagles

Now that Trump has dis-invited the Super Bowl winning Eagles from the White House, perhaps Obama should host a BBQ for the champions.  I heard this first on Facebook.  Of course, it’s too bad Trump had to play politics with the NFL and ruin a perfectly respectful tradition followed by the sitting presidents of the past.  His outrageous comments about firing professional football players for taking a knee during the national anthem at football games were designed more to appeal to Trump supporters than to address the real issue at hand.  African-American men are subjected to inequalities most white men and especially the one-percent of America’s most wealthy individuals cannot comprehend.

The players, mostly the league’s African-Americans, were trying to stage a respectful and passive protest of the killing by guns of unarmed black men being stopped by police.  The act of civil disobedience, if it even rises to that level, by the players was not anything anti-American or even unpatriotic toward the flag or our countries national anthem.  It was to call out the injustice toward a group of most black men who are subjected to mass incarceration rates and many other inequalities that most of the people watching the NFL games in the comfort of their own homes or their high-priced seats at the stadium cannot comprehend.

This all came to light after the disinvite on Tuesday by Trump and a quickly posted tweet by a former Eagles player, Chris Carter.  I hope Obama does have the boys over.  Still, knowing Obama, he probably would not want to seem like he is responding to something he may or may not agree with by his predecessor. The former president can be a bit spineless on some matters. Still, let’s hope that he does respond and forget about the politics for a change. It is too bad that sports has to be dragged into politics like it so often is. The Olympics is often subject to the powers that be.

 

Kid’s Toys Can Now Contain Broken Glass

I am reminded of Dan Aykroyd’s interview with Candice Bergen. It was a consumer watchdog talk show spoof, in which Aykroyd’s character is a sleazy toy manufacturer. Bergen asks him about his bag of broken glass toy and Aykroyd says: “It sells well…look the average kid picks up broken glass everywhere, the beach, the street…. We’re just packaging what the kids want.” This guy, Mulvaney is just packaging what the 1 percent wants. He’s giving the wealthy political donors what they want. No protections for consumers, kids, and parents. Crazy. Perhaps Akroyd’s character Irvin Mainway might want to get his Mister Skin Grafter, Peggy Ear Piercing Kit, General Tron Secret Police Confession Kit or Doggie Dentist Set out on the market while no one is watching. This administration is a joke.