rom the Internet to the Internet of Things and everything in between, the ease and freedom big tech has brought to modern society has altered not only the way we go about our daily lives, but has also changed the way we think about the world and humanity. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have brought a new level of interconnectedness between people and nations on a global level; other online platforms such as Google or Amazon have transformed the way we behave as consumers and knowledge gatherers. In the physical world, technologies such as smart home devices, driverless cars, and all of the sensory systems necessary to connect these devices to the wider grid system have brought the ease and luxuries of the internet out into the real world.
Similarly, physical technologies like drones and satellites equipped with advanced software programs that can detect everything from facial features to heat signatures, are providing the military, governments, private businesses, and even citizens with the ability to view the world in a more broad and in-depth way the likes of which has never been experienced before.
As these technologies continue to advance at a far faster rate than our understanding of them can keep up with, an important question is raised: how are we paying for this upgrade in quality of life?
The answer is, with our personal data, of course. With Google, Amazon, and Facebook providing virtually free and limitless access to their platforms to anyone with an Internet connection, it is easy to forget that these companies are able to maintain these platforms by selling the information that their users provide them to advertisers and any other entities who may request it. And while most people may be aware that the information they provide to these platforms may not be as privately secured as they like, bigger fears over IoT devices such as smart home devices and cell phones and their ability to record and store information one had no intention of allowing them to record has many concerned about the future of personal privacy.
Perhaps most concerning of all, advances in facial recognition programs and other detection software have already been used illegally by criminals—and in some instances, even by governments—to spy on and surveil citizens without their knowledge through the use of satellites, drones, and CCTV. With protecting our online data difficult as it is, and our ability to evade monitoring in both public and private spaces becoming near impossible, is this the end of privacy?
A recent IBM survey found that 71 percent of consumers say that its worth sacrificing privacy for the benefits of technology, and while 80 percent were concerned about how their data is used, only 45 percent had actually updated their privacy settings in the last year.
As technology continues to permeate our homes, places of work, and digital lives, many of the companies behind these technologies have developed a new hidden aim of gleaming every possible bit of information about their users—where they go, what they do, how they feel, how often they use the technology, who they communicate with, etc.—in order to sell this information to advertisers and other companies, who then in turn analyze the data to predict what the consumer might be interested in purchasing based on the information they have provided. This new system of “surveillance capitalism”—where instead of goods, predictions, and personal information are for sale—has zero regard for our concept of privacy and indiscriminately monetizes and objectifies our personal data.
While this is undoubtedly distressing, what is more alarming is that the majority of consumers are fine with this trade off. A recent IBM survey found that 71 percent of consumers say that its worth sacrificing privacy for the benefits of technology, and while 80 percent were concerned about how their data is used, only 45 percent had actually updated their privacy settings in the last year. In fact, many of the companies that collect large amounts of data on consumers—Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, to name a few—are among the most trusted institutions in the U.S., and the upgrade in quality of life these companies have provided people may very well be what has allowed surveillance capitalism to boom.
But what personal data exactly do these companies have on consumers? Amazon, for example—which owns everything from Amazon.com to Kindle to Prime Video to live-streaming service Twitch, and even grocery food store chain Whole Foods—has information on everything you’ve bought, searched for, watched, browsed, and read, as well as your name, address, and the name and address of anyone you’ve ever sent something to using any of these services. Amazon’s security doorbell system Ring can store videos for 30 to 120 days for paying customers, and their smart home system Alexa—which can be switched on using specific wake words—in theory, could be accidentally activated and unintentionally collect and send your personal audio to Amazon. Similarly, other tech giants such as Facebook and Google have access to similar personal information, as well as more sensitive information such as GPS location, phone numbers, place of work, criminal records, and the likes.
While there are opt-out processes and safer browsing options you can use to reduce your digital footprint, complete erasure of one’s personal data from the Internet is near impossible. And while consumers may have a general idea of the information they’re providing these online platforms with, the real sense of danger comes from how pervasive the Internet of Things has become in our personal homes and daily lives—and what information these devices may be inadvertently collecting without our knowledge. With these devices able to pick up your voice and anything you talk about, as well as daily habits, TV preferences, and even the times you leave your house and come back, tech companies are gathering highly private information about who we are in our most personal spaces—information that could fall into the hands of the government or even criminal hackers. And as IoT continues to advance and become more prevalent in the gadgets we use in our everyday lives—integrating into our sprinkler systems and even our toasters—it may soon be near impossible to evade its reach even in our own homes.
Perhaps most concerning of all, it is not just the big tech companies that may be encroaching on privacy at home and in the digital realm, but also the government as public surveillance systems become more commonplace around the world. In the era of drones, satellites, and video surveillance systems in nearly every public area, visual and audio information is being recorded on a 24/7 basis not only in CCTV-laden urban areas, but also from satellite systems hundreds of miles in the sky. And while governments and law enforcement agencies have used technology such as satellite imaging to reduce crimes like drug trafficking and civil disorder, the way in which officials go about using this technology often infringes on the right to privacy. Several government agencies use of facial recognition technology on state driver’s license databases in order to track down undocumented citizens and others who may not show up in the traditional criminal database, for example, has all been done without the consent of those whose state driver’s licenses they use, and may continue if policies to protect people’s information at the DMV isn’t soon put into place.
Of course, even more nefarious uses of these surveillance systems are already in use by various governments around the world. For example, the recent media attention on China’s oppression of the Uyghur people in the XinJiang province has revealed a sophisticated surveillance operation by the Chinese state in which not only are the Uyghurs’ use of social media and instant messaging harshly monitored, but facial recognition technology is also used in public places such as supermarkets, malls, and hospitals to track down potential dissenters. And in Saudi Arabia’s planned futuristic city-state NEOM, recently uncovered documents reveal the government’s plan to have NEOM’s citizens under constant surveillance through similar facial recognition technology—all of which will supposedly be reviewed under a legal system operating outside the boundaries of Saudi Arabia’s court system.
However, some action is being taken in order to reign in governments’ abuse of surveillance technologies. Kazakhstan’s recent move towards forcing citizens to use a special national certificate when browsing the web instead of the traditional certificate that encrypts user data saw Google, Mozilla, and Apple opposing the move by agreeing not to accept the national certificate in their respective web browsers and mobile operating systems. But while this move may work due to the fact that outside of these three mega companies there are few options for web browsing, the development of competing web browsers by other countries could see to a higher rate of surveillance schemes by governments in the future.
Ultimately, as people’s ability to evade surveillance diminishes and they begin to feel more and more that they are targets under constant investigation, trust between people and their governments—and more importantly, people and technology—is severely damaged, and society’s ability to function begins to cease. And as these new surveillance technologies continue to fuel the systematic invasion of privacy, people will continue to feel less like autonomous beings and more like objects under constant scrutiny by the government, up for sale by ad companies, and under attack by more nefarious actors. It is crucial that policies and infrastructure be put into place soon lest the trust between citizens and society is destroyed.