Home Articles An epic business battle that’s only getting started: Who should profit from our data?
Articles - Privacy - November 9, 2019

An epic business battle that’s only getting started: Who should profit from our data?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Surveillance capitalism has become a catch phrase for a Big Tech business model involving the collection of consumer data online (which is monetized via targeted advertising). Worries about this, which include everything from privacy to monopoly power, are one reason that companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and even Apple are under investigation by multiple regulatory agencies.

But what’s less well understood is that surveillance isn’t just the Big Tech business model – it’s increasingly everyone’s. Indeed, as data has become the new oil of our economy, tracking it and leveraging it has become a growth business across any number of industries, not to mention non-profits and the public sector.

A 2019 report from the Democratic strategy group Future Majority found that “thousands of companies gather personal information that their customers or clients provide in the course of doing business with them, and then sell their information to large data brokers, such as credit bureaus. In turn, those data brokers analyze, package and resell the information, often as personal profiles. Their customers range from employers involved in hiring and companies planning marketing campaigns, to banks and mortgage lenders, colleges and universities, political campaigns and charities.” And, it should be noted, public entities like law enforcement and other government agencies.

In the 2002 film Minority Report, Tom Cruise played a policeman working in a specialized division in Virginia known as Pre- Crime that apprehended would-be criminals based on foreknowledge of their crimes provided by psychics. The mass surveillance and technology depicted in the movie—location-based personalized advertising, facial recognition, newspapers that updated themselves— are ubiquitous today. The only thing director Steven Spielberg got wrong was the need for psychics. Instead, law enforcement can turn to data and technologies provided by Google, Facebook, Amazon, and the intelligence group Palantir, who have become such big users of data tools that the reality of data-driven crime fighting in the United States has come to mirror dystopian science fiction.

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Facebook ad tools have, for example, been used to gather data on people who expressed an interest in Black Lives Matter, data of the sort that—as the ACLU has exposed—was then sold to police departments via a third-party data-monitoring and sales company called Geofeedia. This is far from unusual; the collection and sale of data from not only Big Tech firms but myriad other companies via third-party data brokers is a common practice—indeed, it’s the fastest growing part of the U.S. economy.

Credit card companies and healthcare data firms also routinely gather and profit from the personal information of their users. Many of us might be surprised to learn this, considering the HIPAA restrictions on the sharing of healthcare data, or the fact that it can be tough to get access to our own credit scores and data. But, as the report notes, “those restrictions apply only to certain types of financial information—for example, personal bank balances, but not loan repayment data—and the requirements on healthcare information apply to healthcare providers but not to pharmacies or medical device producers.” That means that the online pharmacy owned by, say, Amazon, isn’t bound by such rules—nor is Fitbit, or any number of fitness apps that might be tracking your health information and physical movements.

All of that personal, financial and health-related information can be gathered, analyzed and sold in anonymized forms, which algorithms can match to most people or simply generate detailed financial and health-related profiles based on the extensive information that internet platforms and data brokers have on everyone.

As much data as is being collected on us at the moment, we’re only at the beginning. The Internet of Things has projected personal data gathering into many other aspects of people’s lives. Smart TVs already tally and sell information about what we watch. Soon, smart furniture with sensors will be able to do the same thing. Smart cars, which automakers hope will become the new smartphones, can track every place a user might go, as well as anything that happens inside. Smart beds and fitness bands will monitor our temperatures, heart rates and respiration. And of course, the new generation of voice activated personal assistants—led by Amazon’s Alexa, Echo, and Dot, and Google Nest and Google Home—are listening over our shoulders all the time at home.

But even when we leave the house, surveillance can continue. Consider the Alphabet Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto. The Google parent’s “urban innovation” arm, known as Sidewalk Labs, which works with local governments to place sensors and other technologies around cities (ostensibly to improve city services, but also, of course, to garner data for Google) is creating a “smart city” in the Canadian city. The high-tech neighborhood, which is being created from scratch along twelve acres of the city’s waterfront, will have sensors to detect noise and pollution, as well as heated driveways for smart cars. Robots will deliver mail through underground corridors, and all materials used in the city will be green.

Whether you find such an idea intriguing or creepy, the planning of the entire project has been opaque. Neither the city nor Google released all the details of the project immediately; rather, they’ve been leaked by investigative journalists. A February 2019 Toronto Star piece revealed that the plans for the smart city were much broader than the public had first thought: Google was actually planning to build its own mass transit line to the area, in exchange for a share of the property taxes, development fees, and increased land value that would ordinarily go into the city coffers. Think about that for a minute: One of the richest companies in the world is asking a city government, the sort of entity that it regularly petitions for better infrastructure, education, and services, to give up the money that would help it provide exactly that.

Then there’s the question of…

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