Big corporate brother and sister are watching

“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it” – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.New Internationalist is an astonishing source of alternative information about the world we live in. It is a seer and, to recall an old Heineken jingle, it refreshes the parts other seers cannot reach.

The latest edition (NI 494 July/August 2016) focuses on the ever increasing power of digital corporations that control our lives. Its guest editor Vanessa Baird describes this as a Faustian pact in which “we have traded our privacy for something we find useful” without really understanding the pros and cons.

In “I spy with my little algorithm…” NI reprises arguments from Bruce Schneir’s book Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World (Norton, 2015). It is the part we are familiar with from countless spy dramas in which counterintelligence agants know exactly where a suspect is via his or her mobile phone. It reflects an implicit but unstated bargain with a cell phone company that allows it to know where the phone is at all times.

“Your cell phone tracks where you live and where you work. Since it knows about all the other phones in the area, it tracks whom you spend your days with, whom you meet for lunch, and whom you sleep with. The accumulated data can probably paint a better picture of how you spend your time than you can. In 2012, researchers were able to use this data to predict where people would be 24 hours later to within 20 metres.”

The article explains why this information is valuable and how there is a whole industry dedicated to tracking you in real time. Such information is used to learn how you shop, how close you are to a particular shop or fast-food outlet, and to deliver retail advertising based on your location.

“Your location data is so valuable that cell phone companies are now selling it to data brokers, who resell to anyone willing to pay for it.”

Maybe everyone knows all this stuff and doesn’t care, but it’s not just cell phones.

“Most of us don’t realize the degree to which computers are integrated into everything we do, or that computer storage has become cheap enough to make it feasible to save indefinitely all the data we churn out. All this data is used for surveillance. It happens automatically and it’s largely hidden from view. This is ubiquitous mass surveillance.”

At its heart, surveillance is an invasion of privacy and the justification that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” rests on extremely shaky ground.

“Privacy is an essential human need and central to our ability to control how we relate to the world. Being stripped of privacy is fundamentally dehumanizing, and it makes no difference whether the surveillance is conducted by undercover police or by a computer algorithm.”

To echo George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the solution is in our own hands: Whenever possible, abandon the technology. “If you can feel that staying human is worthwhile, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.”



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