Philosophy tells us that knowledge is power. “But ignorance is bliss,” you say. Wrong! Knowledge generates big bucks. And it’s certainly good to know who is using information about you to make money.
For example, you have Google Now installed on your mobile phone. How very practical! Google calls it a ‘search assistant’ and it’s an automated personal assistant, too. You leave the house in the morning and Google Now tells you right away when the next bus will arrive. Your colleague also has Google Now installed on her phone. When she leaves the house, Google Now tells her how much traffic there is on her route to work. Pretty handy, isn’t it?
But you might also find it a bit spooky. In order to offer these useful features on your phone, Google needs to know a lot about you. And it obtains this information without you even noticing. It uses GPS to record your movement patterns and knows whether you normally travel by car or bus. Google also knows, for example, that you recently searched for a vacation apartment in Tuscany – something that makes the vacation rental company Casetta Toscanella quite happy. After all, it pays Google for highly targeted advertising. So as you walk by the window of Casetta Toscanella on Thursday evening, your trouser pocket buzzes. It’s Google Now notifying you about the rental company’s offer.
Welcome to the internet, transparent user!
As Google knows exactly when and what you have searched for on the internet and which offers you have clicked, it has a nice little dossier on you. You are a man aged between 25 and 30, currently have a girlfriend (Google figured out long ago that you’re heterosexual), like taking your vacations in the country in southern Europe, travel on public transport, have a fondness for manga comics…
By the way, Amazon has also taken note of this and regularly sends you newsletters on new products, even though you normally treat Amazon with disdain. But you once performed a search for out-of-print Japanese comics in ZVAB, the central database of antiquarian books. Or maybe it was Abebooks. It doesn’t matter. Both belong to Amazon. And why does Amazon continue to send you product offerings for sheet metal signs with witty slogans? Because you clicked once or twice on a link on Facebook at some point. Yes, one of your colleagues regularly shares Funbook photos of silly products sold on eBay and Amazon with you. And oops! A single click and your cover is blown.
The online corporations know more than you think. Not to mention, what you think!
Your colleagues don’t see ads for dating sites on Facebook. But you do! Nor do they see ads for manga comics, even if you are using Facebook at the same time as them. Instead, your friends see ads for vacations in the Seychelles. And for cheap car leasing.
“Fine, what’s the big deal?” you say, “I don’t have anything to hide.” And you upload your latest short story (another hobby of yours) to your Dropbox account. Because you have a literary interest in Afghan farmers, critical voices in politics and NGOs and the liberation of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and are opposed to the activities of the genetic engineering lobby and American commodities corporations. Dropbox of all places. In other words, Amazon. (I know, you were a bit skeptical about Google Drive and Microsoft Cloud…)
Now you have greatly increased your value. You’re already a significant recipient of advertising for Google, Facebook, Amazon et al. But now others have begun to show an interest in you as well. And since Google, Amazon and Facebook have close connections to the NSA… But why am I telling you this? You certainly wouldn’t be the first person to be stuck in a transit hall at an American airport (after all, you don’t always have to go to Tuscany) ‒ and shipped right back from whence you came.
Legal ‒ all of it!
The fine print (which, of course, you didn’t read, but still consented to by checking the box) stated that all information collected about you can be used for other purposes. And because data privacy isn’t taken very seriously in the US ‒ even less so in the case of data originating from foreign sources ‒ this consent isn’t even necessary in the first place. Whatever can be siphoned off will be.
Let’s put it this way: you have a certain degree of control over how much you reveal about yourself. Better safe than sorry.
My thoughts at the beginning of the year.