One of the themes of the book I’m working on now is how Amazon, Google, Facebook, and other companies are gathering a shocking degree of our personal data, and using it to sell us stuff. The business school professor Shoshanna Zuboff calls this “surveillance capitalism,” and if you read her great big doorstop of a book about it, you will not be able to look at your devices the same way again.
It’s incredibly sophisticated stuff. When I was in Poland this summer, I spoke to a man who owns a tech company, and he told me artificial intelligence was progressing very quickly to the point where it can know your preferences better than you know them yourself, and will be able to guide you seamlessly to make certain consumer choices without you knowing that you are being guided. You will think you are exercising free will. It is not hard to see how this data can be used for political causes, and not just “Vote For Smith,” either. Woke Capitalism — and it’s hard to be more woke than Silicon Valley companies — can use it to identify who the Deplorables are, and find ways to suppress them. It’s already happening with demonetizing some conservatives. I don’t feel sorry for ideological racists (for example) being demonetized, but you’d have to be a fool to think that the progressives who staff these companies aren’t going eventually to consider ordinary conservative points of view to be bigoted and in need of suppression.
As I’ve mentioned here before, this summer in Prague, when I interviewed the veteran anti-communist dissident Kamila Bendova, she told me that she could not understand why so many people today are willing to allow their data to be captured, e.g., why they aren’t fighting hard for privacy, an opting out at every opportunity. She told me, “When you have lived through what we lived through, you know that the data they capture will sooner or later be used against you.”
Today I listened to a podcast version of a recent Fresh Air interview with Geoffrey Fowler, who writes about tech for the Washington Post. If you’re new to the whole surveillance capitalism phenomenon, this is a great introduction. The link takes you to the audio, as well as the transcript. Here are some highlights from the interview. In this part, Fowler is explaining to host Dave Davies how trackers in apps on your smartphone work:
FOWLER: … To figure out what my phone was doing while I slept at night and also during the day, I had to hack my phone. I went to a guy who used to work for the NSA. His name is Patrick Jackson. He now works for a technology company called Disconnect. And he showed me how to do something called a man-in-the-middle attack on my iPhone that basically, you know, kept a copy of all of the data going in and out of my phone while I slept at night so that we could look through it together.
That’s the level I had to go through to figure out what kind of data was flowing out of my phone and what trackers were running. I couldn’t learn any of that from – either from Apple’s software or from reading the privacy policies of these companies.
DAVIES: So I understand this – so when an app is permitted to be sold in the iPhone store, does Apple require them not to use trackers and some people just aren’t honest about it, or do Apple’s rules permit them to include trackers in the apps that you download?
FOWLER: Until very recently, Apple’s rules permitted them to use whatever trackers they wanted. If you had given an app permission to collect your location – and it does pop up a thing saying, can we collect your location? – if you’d given it that then it could share that with whatever trackers it wanted. About two weeks after my story came out in The Washington Post about what my iPhone did while I was sleeping, Apple announced that it was going to now ban trackers in children’s apps. So ones that were, you know, targeting, you know, people under the age of 13, they said they would no longer allow them to use third-party trackers. That is an admirable move in many ways. But then my question is, why is it OK in adult apps but not in kids’ apps?
DAVIES: And what kinds of information is the tracker transmitting about us?
Do you have a DoorDash food delivery app on your phone? It’s sending your data to NINE different companies. And you’ll want to read the interview to find out why you should never, ever sign into a website using Google or Facebook, as websites often give you the opportunity to do.
In Zuboff’s book, I was alarmed to learn that Amazon’s Alexa smart speakers keep recordings of your voice forever, unless you affirmatively ask that they be deleted. It wasn’t surprising to learn that these speakers record things that they’re not supposed to be recording, with people unawares. What really alarmed me, though, was discovering that if you have a “smart” house, all kinds of data about you and your family is being collected and sent to Amazon. Geoff Fowler said:
Thing I would add is that this project of listening to my Alexa recordings made me wonder – I wonder what all the other ways are that Amazon is eavesdropping on my home because anybody with one of these smart speakers probably knows that, like, oh, you can hook them up to connected devices in your home, right? You can connect it up to light bulbs and thermostats and doorbells and all sorts of things. And I had certainly done that. I’m a technology journalist, and I review all this stuff. And my house is filled with gadgets.
And so I went down the path of trying to figure out, OK, well, what other data from my home other than just me and my family’s voices is it keeping? And I found, I mean, enough that would make the – you know, the East German police blush to see this kind of data. For example, my Nest thermostat was collecting in 15-minute increments over the last six or seven years not only the temperature in my home, but also whether there had been a person that passed in front of it. So there was this perfect record of every time there had been someone in my hallway for years and years and years that was being sent both to Google and to Amazon – because Amazon’s requirement is if your gadget connects in with Alexa that they get to keep a copy of all this data, too.
And then it started multiplying. So yeah, there was the thermostat, but there’s also my garage door. It was doing the same thing. Then there was my connected lights. Literally, Amazon was getting a record of every time a light switched on and off in my house.
DAVIES: And how did you discover that Amazon had these records of your thermostat changes and when people were walking down the hallway?
FOWLER: I started asking. So I went to the companies that make these devices, and I said, hey, can you tell me what data you’re collecting and who you’re sharing it with? Some of them would not answer that question. And that – my frustration with that really animated what’s become a yearlong project by me to sort of see if I can look under the hood and figure out what data is being collected and who it’s being shared with. I’ve been looking at that and all sorts of things – connected devices in our home, our Web browser. And I’ve got even more – more and more projects coming down the pike.
I don’t have a smart speaker in my house, and never will. In fact, from reading Zuboff’s book, I know that you should avoid any Internet-connected device labeled “smart,” because it surveils you and sends that data to its mothership. After listening to that interview, though, I’m going to uninstall my Google Chrome browser, and install Firefox. Click on the interview to understand why.
Let me repeat a line from Fowler:
I found, I mean, enough that would make the — you know, the East German police blush to see this kind of data.
Do you see why Kamila Bendova, whose husband spent four years in jail as a political prisoner, and whose apartment was heavily bugged, would be so anxious about the kind of surveillance we are welcoming into our lives? She believes we are terribly naive to think that this won’t be used against us someday, either by these powerful companies, or by the government. You really think Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the others wouldn’t turn this information over to the government if they were forced to by some more authoritarian state?
I deeply regret doing the DNA testing three years ago. I thought it would be fun to know my origins. Now the most personal data of all is on record somewhere, owned by a company. My wife did the test too, so in theory, our children’s DNA profile could be roughly cobbled together. They didn’t consent to this, but it’s took late. We didn’t even think about it at the time.