WASHINGTON (CNS) — It is the latest great irony of our age: We spend so much time watching TV — regardless of device — and it turns out that TV is watching us.
And not in a good way.
As Kaveh Waddell wrote for Axios, “Internet-connected devices can pick up your voice, interests, habits, TV preferences, meals, times home and away, and all sorts of other sensitive data. The gadgets send all this back to the tech companies where they were made.”
This is somewhat different than a totalitarian regime tracking your every move to make sure you stay in line. Instead, private companies are tracking our online moves so they can sell us more stuff. And if they can’t sell it to us themselves, then they can sell our data to companies who’ll make their best effort at it.
There’s already a name attached to this practice: surveillance capitalism.
Some of this we do willingly, although we don’t exactly understand the consequences of it. With every Ring video doorbell unit installed — not to mention each time we talk to Siri, Alexa and “Hey, Google” — some company in the technosphere is collecting that tidbit of information about you and your lifestyle.
Other aspects of this we do more or less resignedly, like when we accept “cookies” that let us be tracked so we can peruse something online.
Still other aspects of this online ritual we didn’t even realize we had done until after we’d done it.
In the past month, I looked up the ticket price to a certain Broadway musical. For two weeks afterward, I saw ads promoting that musical on all manner of websites. Within a week of this article being written, I made a purchase online at a site I can’t ever recall having visited before — and if I had, it was one or two computers ago. Now, the first ad in my Facebook feed is from the same site where I bought that stuff. And to see an item you bought featured in an ad silently saying “buy me” is a cross between frustrating and enervating.
Wrote Steve LeVine, also for Axios: “For almost two decades, a tiny handful of companies — Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and China’s Alibaba and Tencent — have sought to know every possible thing, public and private, in real time, about you and every other reachable individual on the planet — where they go, what they do, say and feel.
“Their product: Certain predictions about what we will do next, often set in motion using techniques of behavior modification.”
Companies can mine data from public records as well as your digital experiences. They can sell this information to other companies that can tweak the demographics in such a way that there’s only one person who fits that demographic profile: you.
There’s an industry term for a company like that: data broker.
The Washington Post interviewed a school bus driver in Vermont about his mined-data profile. The details purchased by the Post for the purposes of interviewing the man were mostly correct. The profile had the bus driver’s age off by one year, and it incorrectly guessed his ethnicity. It also did not disclose his income; the man said nobody should have access to that unless IRS computers were hacked.
Speaking of government computers, two huge breaches took place in 2014-15 of computers of the federal Office of Personnel Management. One hack exposed the details of an estimated 21.5 million people who had undergone background checks since about 2000. The other involved personnel records of about 4.2 million current and former federal employees.
A June 21 federal appeals court held OPM responsible for the breaches, especially since the agency had been told its sites were vulnerable to hackers yet did nothing to prevent it over the several months the data was collected. The decision opens the door to possible monetary awards for federal employees and others whose personal information was hacked.
If the federal government is unable to pull in the reins, can states do any better?
One reason The Washington Post did its experiment with the Vermont bus driver was because Vermont enacted a law in 2018 that required all businesses trading data on Vermont’s residents to register publicly and share some basic information about how they operate. Compliance with the law has been halting.
California passed a law, also last year, regarded by many as the most stringent online personal privacy bill yet. Among other things, it will let California residents to opt out of having their data sold. A Maine law, reported the Post, bars internet service providers from selling information on their broadband customers. At least three other states are known to have similar bills in the legislative hopper.
Yes, there are ways for individuals to deter the glut of online tracking. But wouldn’t it be far easier if it could be stopped at its source?
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