Surveillance as a Business Model
Google recently announced that it would start including individual users’ names and photos in some ads. This means that if you rate some product positively, your friends may see ads for that product with your name and photo attached—without your knowledge or consent. Meanwhile, Facebook is eliminating a feature that allowed people to retain some portions of their anonymity on its website.
These changes come on the heels of Google’s move to explore replacing tracking cookies with something that users have even less control over. Microsoft is doing something similar by developing its own tracking technology.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that big technology companies are tracking us on the Internet even more aggressively than before.
If these features don’t sound particularly beneficial to you, it’s because you’re not the customer of any of these companies. You’re the product, and you’re being improved for their actual customers: their advertisers.
This is nothing new. For years, these sites and others have systematically improved their “product” by reducing user privacy. This excellent infographic, for example, illustrates how Facebook has done so over the years.
The “Do Not Track” law serves as a sterling example of how bad things are. When it was proposed, it was supposed to give users the right to demand that Internet companies not track them. Internet companies fought hard against the law, and when it was passed, they fought to ensure that it didn’t have any benefit to users. Right now, complying is entirely voluntary, meaning that no Internet company has to follow the law. If a company does, because it wants the PR benefit of seeming to take user privacy seriously, it can still track its users.
Really: if you tell a “Do Not Track”-enabled company that you don’t want to be tracked, it will stop showing you personalized ads. But your activity will be tracked — and your personal information collected, sold and used — just like everyone else’s. It’s best to think of it as a “track me in secret” law.
Of course, people don’t think of it that way. Most people aren’t fully aware of how much of their data is collected by these sites. And, as the “Do Not Track” story illustrates, Internet companies are doing their best to keep it that way.
The result is a world where our most intimate personal details are collected and stored. I used to say that Google has a more intimate picture of what I’m thinking of than my wife does. But that’s not far enough: Google has a more intimate picture than I do. The company knows exactly what I am thinking about, how much I am thinking about it, and when I stop thinking about it: all from my Google searches. And it remembers all of that forever.
As the Edward Snowden revelations continue to expose the full extent of the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping on the Internet, it has become increasingly obvious how much of that has been enabled by the corporate world’s existing eavesdropping on the Internet.
The public/private surveillance partnership is fraying, but it’s largely alive and well. The NSA didn’t build its eavesdropping system from scratch; it got itself a copy of what the corporate world was already collecting.
There are a lot of reasons why Internet surveillance is so prevalent and pervasive.
One, users like free things, and don’t realize how much value they’re giving away to get it. We know that “free” is a special price that confuses peoples’ thinking.
Google’s 2013 third quarter profits were nearly $3 billion; that profit is the difference between how much our privacy is worth and the cost of the services we receive in exchange for it.
Two, Internet companies deliberately make privacy not salient. When you log onto Facebook, you don’t think about how much personal information you’re revealing to the company; you’re chatting with your friends. When you wake up in the morning, you don’t think about how you’re going to allow a bunch of companies to track you throughout the day; you just put your cell phone in your pocket.
And three, the Internet’s winner-takes-all market means that privacy-preserving alternatives have trouble getting off the ground. How many of you know that there is a Google alternative called DuckDuckGo that doesn’t track you? Or that you can use cut-out sites to anonymize your Google queries? I have opted out of Facebook, and I know it affects my social life.
There are two types of changes that need to happen in order to fix this. First, there’s the market change. We need to become actual customers of these sites so we can use purchasing power to force them to take our privacy seriously. But that’s not enough. Because of the market failures surrounding privacy, a second change is needed. We need government regulations that protect our privacy by limiting what these sites can do with our data.
Surveillance is the business model of the Internet — Al Gore recently called it a “stalker economy.” All major websites run on advertising, and the more personal and targeted that advertising is, the more revenue the site gets for it. As long as we users remain the product, there is minimal incentive for these companies to provide any real privacy.
This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.