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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.”