There's no stopping tech giants' surveillance for profit
Data is the most valuable commodity in the world.
So declared the Economist in a May 6, 2017, article. Just as a century ago, when oil was the most prized resource, a handful of companies now control the flow of information. The Economist concludes that the antitrust measures that ultimately broke up the oil monopolies won't work to loosen the iron-clad grip Google (and parent Alphabet), Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft hold over the flow and commercialization of data.
When investigating tech mergers and acquisitions, antitrust authorities fail to consider the impact of the deals on the collection and capitlization of data by the acquiring companies. If they did examine the data aspects of transactions such as Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp, more "red flags" would be raised, according to the Economist.
Another potential countermeasure to data monopolies is to make data collection and commercialization more transparent: Let consumers know what information is being gathered and how the data is being used. The only way tech companies would ever agree to share with their "customers" what they know about them is through government regulation. The Economist is optimistic about government intervention in the data industry -- at least as it relates to residents of the European Union, who in seven months will benefit from implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation.
The 'extraction' of our private data has just begun
If you think tech companies know a lot about you now, wait until they implement their plans to track your movements in the real world. The Guardian's Ben Tarnoff points out in an August 23, 2017, article that the low-hanging fruit of private information has all been plucked, resulting in astronomical profits for the handful of companies that monopolize the data-collection industry. To maintain those record revenue numbers, the tech titans will have to dig deeper -- into our homes and our day-to-day activities in the real world.
To increase the amount of data they extract, the Data Kings can either get people to spend more time online, or they can attract new audiences by getting more of the world's population online. They accomplish the former by making their apps and services as "addictive" as possible, and they address the latter via programs such as Facebook's Free Basics service that target populations in "underdeveloped regions" of the planet.
According to Tarnoff, for the tech giants, "anything less than total knowledge of [their] users represents lost revenue. Any unmonitored moment is a missed opportunity." For example, last year Amazon opened a "smart" grocery store in Seattle that requires no checkout. Customers are watched as they move through the store, and every product they choose is recorded. Also recorded is everything else the customers do in the store: how much time they spend in each department, which products they examine. It's not difficult to imagine something similar to these options coming soon to a Whole Foods near you.
'Surveillance is the business model of the internet'
The coup for the internet giants is to get their listening devices into your living room -- and elsewhere in your home. Amazon's Echo speaker includes the Alexa "voice-activated assistant," as Tarnoff describes it. Alexa is a "good listener," reporting to Amazon about your interactions. The device may be listening to "absolutely everything," according to Tarnoff.
Tarnoff concludes that consumers are "powerless," and he claims "the only solution is political." It's unlikely that Congress will rein in the data industry anytime soon. There's too much money to be made. In an August 25, 2017, interview with Liz Mineo of Harvard Law Today, security expert Bruce Schneier states that "[s]urveillance is the business model of the internet." The companies use what they know about us to sell us stuff. We have met the product, and it is us.
Schneier points out that in the 1970s, the courts ruled that subliminal advertising was illegal because it was "morally wrong," yet the "personalized manipulation" being done today amounts to "an unfair and deceptive business practice." The practitioners of surveillance capitalism won't let Congress, the courts, or anyone else prevent them from collecting and monetizing all the private information they can get their hands on.
According to Schneier, it's easy to understand why regulators in Europe are doing more to protect the privacy of their citizens than their counterparts in the U.S.: "In general, Americans tend to mistrust government and trust corporations. Europeans tend to trust government and mistrust corporations."
Schneier believes email is "fundamentally insecurable," and like nearly everyone else on the planet, he volunteers some personal information to "free" web services. Echoing the Guardian's Tarnoff, Schneier recommends that people get involved in the political process and make surveillance a "political issue."
Researchers at the Lookout security software company report in an August 21, 2017, post that they discovered a malicious advertising software development toolkit (SDK) embedded in more than 500 Android applications available on the Google Play service. Altogether, the infected apps were downloaded to Android devices in excess of 100 million times.
ZDNet's Danny Palmer reports in an August 22, 2017, article that Google has removed from Google Play all the apps containing the "rogue SDK called Igexin." The program has been traced back to China; it collects users' "interests, occupation, income and location for the benefit of advertising." The developers of the applications that included the Igexin SDK were unaware that it was overstepping its data-access permissions. They didn't know that their apps were raiding the Android devices' personal information, including the ability to "record details about calls." Only the bogus ad network benefitted from the malware.
Google's advice for Android users is to check regularly for app updates, and when they're available, download and install the updates a.s.a.p.
A U.K. bank got some of its London office workers in a lather when the staff discovered tracking devices had been attached to their desks. Barclay's states that it notified the workers of the surveillance via a company-wide email. Marianne Calnan writes in an August 21, 2017, article on People Management that Barclays' claims it was merely attempting to "monitor how office space is being used."
The OccupEye tracking product used by the bank senses heat and motion to monitor when someone is present at a desk. Managers use a "multicoloured dashboard" that tells them when desks are in use, and for how long at a time. Many employees "did not recall being informed about the boxes," yet a Barclay's spokesperson states that HR has received no complaints from employees about the devices.
According to Calnan, a previous attempt to install similar tracking devices at the U.K. offices of the Daily Telegraph newspaper was thwarted after objections about the surveillance were filed by National Union of Journalists.
It will soon be possible to alter video and audio to make it appear the speaker is saying whatever you want them to say. We'll never be able to trust the authenticity of a recording based solely on our own senses. A July 7, 2017, article in a series entitled "Economist Explains" describes software that literally puts words in the mouths of people recorded on video and audio.
Rather than altering the recording, the technology creates fake copies that have been altered. Machine learning lets subsequent fakes be compared to the original until the fake and the genuine article are so similar that people can't tell them apart. The Economist points out that other artifacts in the fake recordings may give them away as bogus. Also, news organizations are likely to rely even more on metadata these days to verify the authenticity of recordings. For example, it's much more difficult to fake when and where a recording was made, according to the Economist.