Surveillance Policies

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That is what Shoshana Zuboff, in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, calls privacy policies, whether they are ones we sign when we apply for a loan or seek medical care, or when we click on a website or install a phone app. She contends that basically what we are doing over and over in daily life is agreeing to how a variety of organizations may surveil our behavior and mine and distribute the data that every click we make, everywhere we go with our smartphones, how we drive our vehicles, and the conversations we have with Alexa or Google Home.

We think we are accessing sites like Facebook or Google at no cost. Actually, we are the raw resource that these companies use to mine tons of data. Our “likes,” the articles and ads we click on, our location, our demographics are all used to supply targeted information to us. It is also shared, often without our knowledge. It can go badly wrong as occurred with Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to attempt to manipulate voters.

But increasingly, it is not simply our behavior on our computers and phones. The expansion of the “internet of things” all offer data about us. Computers in our cars provide insurers and others information about our driving behavior, determining insurance premiums. Lenders who do not receive payments can literally turn our cars off! A variety of devices are being installed in our home. If I wanted, I could connect my garage door and washer and dryer to wi-fi and control them by my phone. Thermostats can feed information about the interior of our homes. There are beds that transmit sleep data and even can record sounds. Not sure I like that! In addition to the phones we carry, there are fitness wear that record and transmit a variety of biometric data. Personal digital assistants like Alexa and Google Home are always listening (as are SMART TV’s).

Of course, our customer cards and apps that we use for grocery shopping, at pharmacies, and other retail outlets appear to offer us discounts on our purchases, but what is really happening is offering data about us. Sure, some of it is anonymized, but the coupons and offers mailed to us seem keyed to our purchasing history. Likewise, our credit cards offer and record of our commercial habits, our recreation preferences, our charitable giving and more.

I’m reading Zuboff’s book and it is chilling both to realize how much of our lives are rendered into data sources often distributed to parties of whom I’m unaware and the relative contempt with which various entities view the privacy of our information. Furthermore, we willingly comply in the surrender of this information in most cases. Most of us never read the “privacy agreements” allowing various entities to obtain and distribute our information. We click or sign without reading, and some estimates suggest we could spend a good part of each year reading these if we chose.

I have a friend who prefers to use cash and works hard to minimize his electronic footprint. He’s accepted the fact that this limits his access to many things. He stays off all social media. Yet it’s hard, he carries a cell phone, a huge source of data about us.

What, then, can we do? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Assume that nothing about your life is private. Maybe that has a silver lining. If we believe in an all-knowing God, we already believe that nothing in our lives is private!
  • Assume that anything you have ever done online, anything you’ve said is still out there and accessible to someone, and that every click yields information about you.
  • Review the “permissions” for each app on your phone. The defaults for some ask for far more than the app needs to function. Deny these.
  • Be aware of all the devices in your home that are or may be connected to the internet, usually via your wi-fi, or to your phone via bluetooth. Think carefully about enabling each of these and what information they collect. Assume all of it leaves your home and you may not know where it goes.
  • Consider the wearables, like fitness trackers, that are uploading biometric information about you. Any health and fitness apps on your phone also upload any data you voluntarily or involuntarily provide.
  • Assume that all privacy policies are surveillance policies. They are not intended to protect you, but rather whoever is providing service.
  • You may consider DuckDuckGo for internet searches, which has greater privacy protection.

The challenge right now is all these “applications” have you over a barrel. Unless you agree to their surveillance policies, you either can’t install the app, or use the service, or it only has highly limited functionality. Companies don’t need to do this but there are huge financial interests that favor this surveillance. Probably only broad-based advocacy with legislative support can change this, unless someone figures out how to protect privacy and make money, creating an alternate business strategy.

Caveat emptor friends!

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