Whether huge privacy blunders at Facebook and apparent contempt for individual personal space there and at other technology giants bothers you or not, it’s changing our way of life in America for the worse. Consumers are grudgingly accepting that being monitored by corporations and government is now a fact of life.
Facebook and Google may know more about you than you do. Eight words by Bruce Schneier, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, sums up the issue as succinctly as anyone: “Surveillance is the business model of the internet.”
Sadly, he is spot on.
More than five years after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program, the NSA’s data collection methods have not meaningfully changed. And the far more intrusive behavior of corporations, has gotten markedly worse.
In fact, critics of technology industry miscreants include one of the most prominent players in their own industry – Apple CEO Tim Cook, who last fall called for nationwide data protection regulation. He bluntly said personal information has been weaponized against consumers “with military efficiency.” Outside of public embarrassment, there are no real consequences for online privacy.
Internet Founded as an Open Research Tool
The internet was born as an open research tool – i.e., one never designed to provide security or privacy. Even so, the situation has grown way out of control. Facebook – responsible last year for enabling Cambridge Analytica to improperly harvest the Facebook data of 50 million people to target users for political advertisements -- continues to strike out on the privacy front.
Just last month, for example, the company learned that a bug may have impacted up to 6.8 million additional users by enabling app developers to see photos that users uploaded but never posted. Serial violations of user privacy have prompted veteran technology investor and former Facebook director Roger McNamee to excoriate the company in the latest cover story in Time magazine. In October, meanwhile, Google admitted that it had exposed the private data of hundreds of thousands of users of its Google+ social network.
We’ve also learned recently that hidden trackers have come to inundate websites.
According to the Princeton Web Transparency & Accountability Project, 76 percent of websites now contain hidden Google trackers and 24 percent have hidden Facebook trackers. This means that Google and Facebook are monitoring their consumers on many other sites they visit.
The fact is, consumers continue to lose their battle with websites, particularly e-commerce sites. These days, most consumers increasingly have less protection on web sites, not more.
Troubling SimplyQuick.com Survey
In a survey last June, SimplyQuick.com found that most of the top 90 sites surveyed had policies indicating that personal information would not be shipped to third parties. Nonetheless, a follow-up survey in November revealed a disconcerting about-face. The same sites now indicate that they have the right to sell information to outside parties if consumers do not go to the trouble to “opt out.” Only 30 percent of the 90 sites surveyed guaranteed that they won’t sell information.
There is no reason to think things will improve much despite all the legislators who belittled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for his privacy snafus in Congressional testimony last April. Congress has moved on to hot new issues, such as President Trump’s proposed wall to stop illegal immigrants on the southern border.
Moreover, the Internet of Things keeps exploding, with global consumer IoT spending rising to $62 billion in 2018. There remains little oversight of what data these products can collect or how it’s traded to marketers and protected from hackers. Connected devices often ask users to input personal information, including their name, age, gender, email address and social media accounts.
This is not to say that corporations are 100% at fault.
A survey by McAfee a year ago showed that consumers themselves aren’t doing enough to enhance their security and privacy. Lapses include insufficient knowledge about how to secure connected devices and apps (52% said so), failure to immediately change default passwords (40% admitted this), too little use of credit monitoring services (only 37% use them), and inadequate knowledge about risks to explain them to children (33% of parents said so).
Consumers can help themselves in other ways, including:
- Configuring their browser to delete cookies.
- Refraining from posting identifying details on public sites, such as tagging photos.
- Embracing search engines that do not track or store personal information, such as DuckDuckGo.
- Remembering to turn off location services on smart phones when not needed.
- Taking steps to avoid using cloud backup.
Consumers can pursue more meaningful measures as well. They should write their congressman to embrace suggestions by Tim Berners-Lee -- the creator of the web and founder of The World Wide Web Foundation -- to give American consumers access to and knowledge of all collection and uses of personal data by companies.
Lee also believes – and I wholeheartedly agree – that opt-in consent should be required for the collection of personal data by any party and to the sharing of personal data with a third party. Yet another good idea is to have the power to obtain, correct or delete personal data controlled by any company and to have these requests honored by third parties.
Need to Turn Suggestions into Reality
At this point, none of these steps are a reality. They may never be without government mandates. Verbal intentions of corporate self-regulation seem largely meaningless because companies fundamentally oppose core business models that rely on hyper-targeted advertising – advertising made possible only by increasingly intrusive personal surveillance.
Government is on the spot to generate change and should look at Europe’s tough General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for direction. Our future will undisputedly be less bright if this doesn’t somehow happen, and sooner rather than later. Maximization of profits is part and parcel of our capitalist society. But at times it must be curbed to preserve our nation’s overall welfare.