Nothing is more costly than a free service. If you think such services such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, or Twitter are given to you for free, you have a naïve idea of how these companies make their money. The truth is that Information from you is collected from your browsing habits and sold to marketers and partners at a nice profit; a profit that you get no financial benefits from. In short, you are working for free. I guess it’s you who are offering the free service.
Okay, raise your hand if you’ve read the license agreement for the services you receive from the above companies. Yeah, that’s what I thought. When you clicked the ‘Accept’ box on the privacy agreement, you gave up more rights to your privacy than you may have wanted to. Probably the best way to begin this post is to use a quote from Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, himself.
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines – including Google – do retain this information for some time and it’s important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities.”
To translate, yes, we are following you and gathering data on everything you search for. We will also give any information we have on you to the government if they want it. That is to say, if you use Google, you are under government surveillance by default.
All these companies generate revenue in much the same way. They sell the rights to your privacy. They sell your personal information. But what exactly do they learn about you and what powers do they really have? Here is a list of some of the things Google says it can do in its privacy agreement. Remember, this type of information gathering is not only done by Google.
They know, and can use, your name, email address, telephone number, credit card number (used to verify age), and what kind of YouTube videos you like. Can they read your emails? “Our system may automatically scan the content in our services, such as emails in Gmail, to serve you more relevant ads.” So the answer is, ‘yes’, but they claim this is all done by machines and not humans. Google is a large company offering many services and signing up for one service means you are under surveillance for all of their services. “This includes information like your usage data and preferences, Gmail messages, G+ profile, photos, videos, browsing history, map searches, docs, or other Google-hosted content.” In addition, “we collect device-specific information (such as your hardware model, operating system version, unique device identifiers, and mobile network information including phone number). Google may associate your device identifiers or phone number with your Google Account.” This allows them to access “telephony log information like your phone number, calling-party number, forwarding numbers, time and date of calls, duration of calls, SMS routing information and types of calls.” Not only that, but they can use your device to store whatever information they find on you, which seems somewhat presumptuous. “We may collect and store information (including personal information) locally on your device using mechanisms such as browser web storage (including HTML 5) and application data caches.” Hmm, maybe they should pay you for storing information on your computer that helps their marketing.
Who are they selling your information to anyway? Google sells data to companies who sign up for their targeted ad services. They match the business’ product to the profiles of people who may be interested in it. The more you browse and use their services, the more they learn your likes and dislikes. Even if you opt out of receiving targeted ads, you will still get ads. In other words, if you want ads targeting your supposed interests, you have to let them use your personal information. Google is not innately evil. They are simply doing what you told them they could do.
However, there is another dimension to internet surveillance that Google and other social media firms would rather not talk about. This is the topic of providing information on you to the government or law enforcement agencies. The disclosure of the NSA’s Prism surveillance program by Edward Snowden named at least 9 internet firms who were supplying information to the U.S. government.
Among these companies were Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, Skype, and Apple. But the Washington Post reported that “98 percent of PRISM production is based on Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft.” Google admits that they “will share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google if we have a good-faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of the information is reasonably necessary to:
- meet any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request.
- enforce applicable Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations.
- detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues.
- protect against harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, our users or the public as required or permitted by law.”
Google, and the other companies mentioned, met this disclosure of their working with the government with declarations of innocence. “Google cares deeply about the security of our users’ data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ‘back door’ into our systems, but Google does not have a backdoor for the government to access private user data… [A]ny suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ internet activity on such a scale is completely false.”
Google may be right. There would be no need to install a backdoor if the front door was already open. Google appears to have worked out an arrangement with the NSA. One investigator stated that “according to officials who were privy to the details of Google’s arrangements with the NSA, the company agreed to provide information about traffic on its networks in exchange for intelligence from the NSA about what it knew of foreign hackers.” In such a case, Google would not have to install a backdoor that the NSA could use, they could just ‘accidentally’ forget to close it. In other words, they could leave an unpatched exploit in place that the government could exploit.
I won’t pursue this in any detail because it’s clear that the government can easily access your information via Google or other social media services. The important fact to keep in mind is that every social media platform is developing new strategies to acquire personal information on their users. Facebook even wants to design a program that will allow an algorithm to determine your mood by accessing your face through your camera. This is marketing through assessing your emotional state, but how long will it be before this evolves into marketing by manipulating your emotional state?
If you do not want your browsing and other habits to be monitored for marketing, you will have to find how to disable the tracking capabilities of each social media outlet. These sites don’t make this easy. However, before you begin adjusting your ad settings, I would suggest going to a site called, Panopticlick. This site will test your browser’s tracking vulnerabilities for free. Here is what it said about my usual browser.
And here it was it says about my use of the Tor browser.
Yes, the Tor browser does seem to limit the use of your personal information. The important statistic to note is that which gives the uniqueness of your browser fingerprint. The higher the number, the easier it is to identify you. It is the uniqueness of your browser configuration that gives you away and this has nothing to do with cookies. Your browser fingerprint allows you to be identified and tracked even with cookies disabled.
Do not be surprised if you see a red ‘X’ in every category. I have most of my browser tracking sites turned off. To get a more complete view of who is tracking you, go here, It will be a sobering experience. If you want to opt out of all targeted marketing and see who’s been using your information, go here. In short, you will quickly learn that everyone is targeting you and you’ll never stop all of them.
In my last post I showed how to avoid Facebook’s pixel-based marketing. For Google, you will have to go to your personal account, “Ad settings”, “Manage Ads Settings”. When you get here, you can turn off “Ads Personalization”. If you go to the bottom of the page you will see the “Opt out of more ads” link which will give you more control over who targets you.
Again, I do not want to condemn Google or any other digital site as having nefarious goals. These are businesses that provide services we like to use. As businesses, they need to make money to operate. True, they could make their marketing plans somewhat more transparent, but when it comes to using internet services, it’s a let-the-buyer-beware landscape. I have less tolerance for their attitudes on government surveillance. There is no transparency at all here and we can’t be sure how much information is collected by the government by whim rather than by judicial decrees. If these social media sites collapse, it will not be targeted marketing that brings them down. It will be the fear of continual surveillance and the paranoia that this will generate in its users.