The price we pay for unbridled digital surveillance
The way you use your phone could determine whether you qualify for a loan, and if you do qualify, what interest rate you'll be paying. What you post on social media affects whether you'll be hired for the job you've spent years working and striving for. Yet people continue to care not one whit about having their every move recorded, catalogued, and resold to the highest bidder.
"It'll get worse before it gets better."
That statement applies generally these days. The current U.S. political regime is getting stronger, not weaker. Just when we need to protect our privacy the most, doing so becomes nearly impossible.
If you still don't believe you are being surveilled 24-7, I would like to direct your attention to a June 9, 2017, article by the Register's Thomas Claburn that reports on a study by the Austria-based "cultural advocacy group" Cracked Labs on the impact of corporate surveillance. The researchers describe the direct connection between the data collection industry and the negative impact the information gathering has on consumers.
Here are two examples cited in the Cracked Labs report: a lending company in Singapore bases credit scores on how you use browsers, mobile phones, and applications; and the insurance firm Aviva uses consumer information it buys from a data broker to predict an individual's health risks, even though the data is intended to be used for marketing purposes only.
What surveillance tells the data collectors about you
Liking something on Facebook appears to be an innocent activity. The Cracked Lab report states that your Facebook likes tell data collectors your ethnicity (95 percent accuracy), your sexual orientation (88 percent for males, 75 percent for females), political views (85 percent), religion (82 percent), alcohol use (70 percent), and drug use (65 percent).
Similarly, your phone records and app usage indicate your emotional stability (72 percent accuracy), extroversion (76 percent), conscientiousness (75 percent), and agreeableness (70 percent). Even the way you type on the keyboard tells the surveillors whether you're confident (83 percent accuracy), nervous (also 83 percent), sad (88 percent), or tired (84 percent).
The Cracked Labs study cites a ProPublica project that collected more than 52,000 unique attributes Facebook uses to classify its 1.9 billion users. Since 2013, Facebook has bought information about its users from big-name data brokers Acxiom, Epsilon, DataLogix, and BlueKai (the last two brokers were subsequently acquired by Oracle). The resulting detailed user profiles are the source of Facebook's riches.
Not just watching people, but manipulating them invisibly
Acxiom has dossiers on 700 million people. The profiles may include any of 3,000 attributes, such as cardiac health, purchase history, whether you frequent casinos or play the lottery, whether you're a "social influencer" or someone likely to be "socially influenced," and every place you've lived for the past 45 years.
That's nothing compared to the more-than-30,000 personal attributes Oracle assigns to its 2 billion consumer profiles. The categories include allergies, movies watched, how you stand on immigration, and whether you've searched for "protests, strikes, boycotts, or riots." These companies don't just know how you're feeling, they know how to manipulate you so you feel and act a particular way -- such as influencing you to buy whatever it is they're selling.
When it comes to the internet, the playing field is decidedly uneven. They know how you feel, they change how you feel, they coerce you into doing things you wouldn't do otherwise. And they do it all without you being aware of it. To data collectors, we're all a bunch of puppets, and they're the ones pulling the strings.
Apple and Google offer ad-blocking browsers -- with a big difference: Some people block ads in their browsers and on their mobile phones because the ads are annoying. Other folks do so to prevent the ads from tracking them around the internet -- and elsewhere. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Alan Toner writes in a June 7, 2017, article that a version of Google's Chrome browser is scheduled for release in 2018 that will block ads that don't comply with the Better Ads Standard of the Coalition for Better Ads.
The standards are intended to prevent pop-up ads, autoplay videos with audio, and interstitial ads that obstruct the entire screen. The Chrome ad blocking doesn't prevent tracking, however. By contrast, Apple's Safari browser will use intelligent tracking prevention to block third-party trackers, which the EFF says is similar to the technology used in the foundation's Privacy Badger browser extension for blocking trackers.
Google also announced a program intended to allow people who block ads to either whitelist the site in their ad blocker, or pay a small fee to view the site content without ads displaying. As the EFF's Toner points out, even if you pay, you'll still be tracked by third parties. The ad industry refuses to acknowledge that people don't want to be tracked, and the industry won't regain our trust until they provide us with a legitimate do-not-track option.
Maybe we're using the wrong economic indicators: If you believe the experts, we're in the midst of a booming economy. The stock market is soaring, and unemployment levels are low. So why is our standard of living dropping like a rock? In a June 7, 2017, article on AlterNet, Ron French reports on a recent Stanford University study that found young people entering the workforce are less likely to out-earn their parents than the children of the two previous generations.
Knowing that your children will "climb higher on the economic ladder" than you did is the heart of the American Dream, according to the study authors. The odds of that happening have dropped from 90 percent in 1970 (for 30-year-olds) to about 50 percent in 2010. The state recording the most precipitous drop in expected increase is Michigan, which ranked 13th of the 50 states in 1970 at 93 percent out-earning their parents, to just 46 percent in 2010.
The study authors believe economic analysts are focusing on the wrong indicators. Rather than measuring the number of jobs added, they should look at the increase in median wage. (The April 5, 2017, Weekly discussed the sharp decline in the labor-force participation rate, which skews the reported unemployment rate.)
Tips for finding a VPN you can trust: The March 29, 2017, Weekly described virtual private network services that encrypt your internet communications. The increasing popularity of VPNs has led to some shady offerings purporting to keep you safe. In a March 17, 2017, post on Krebs on Security, Brian Krebs goes into detail on the factors to consider when choosing a VPN service. The best services take the time to explain to their customers the significance of Domain Name System (DNS) and IPv6 leaks, as well as how to use the service safely.
Krebs recommends asking whether the company maintains logs of its customers' activities, and whether it offers payment mechanisms that are difficult to trace. The services should provide a range of servers and locations to use for secure access, and they need to support transmission speeds capable of meeting your needs, such as if you stream a lot of video. Lastly, beware of "free" VPN services, whose profits usually rely on collecting and reselling your data.