Recently, a woman I didn’t recognize jogged by our house and said, “I love your new walkway!” Back in the spring, I had to call a neighbor because I couldn’t reach the friend who’d agreed to walk our dog—and I was dealing with a crisis. My neighbor said, “Oh, I saw your dog a little while ago. A blonde woman was walking her.” Life in a small town means people notice you (and your dog) and know things about you, just because it is a small town. I don’t mind this.
But I do object to the many companies out there that have been busily collecting my personal information—and everyone else’s. Facebook and Google in particular know an incredible amount about us. I checked my Facebook page. I usually ignore the ads; I only go there to keep up with people and I rarely post anything. I found ads for products I’d looked at when shopping on Amazon: art supplies, vitamins, dog collars. And I saw ads related to searches I’d done on Google, not Amazon, like white boards and storage shelves. Most alarming, though, was when Facebook suggested someone I might want to friend—a person I hadn’t seen or heard from in more than thirty years, and our connection was tangential at best. And I never really filled out the Facebook profile.
The problem goes way beyond Facebook and Google—although a Princeton Transparency project did find that 76% of websites have hidden Google trackers, and 24% have hidden Facebook trackers. But many, many websites allow third parties to track our activity, according to a CBS report. This information about our searches is then sold to data brokers, which in turn sell it to other companies that use it to better target us for advertising. In 2013, West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller called the world of data brokers “the dark underside of American life.”
As for smart phones—well, former Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill calls them “basically mini tracking devices.” Geo-location data—our movements during the day—is valuable information sold for commercial purposes. And we found out in 2013, courtesy of Edward Snowden, that the National Security Agency also collects data about us. Truly, our personal information is not private anymore.
My husband got a pop-up ad out of the blue for a CPAP machine, and he’d never looked for one online. But he does use one. How did the competitor company find out? It’s unnerving. And let’s not even go into the fact that the machine tracks his sleep and sends all the information back to the company. This is the beginning of the new world of smart machines.
I suppose I was naïve not to expect this. It’s the way our society operates now. Banking, voting, medical records, it’s all done digitally. And it does make our lives more convenient. After all, I have used electric typewriters, word processing machines, and libraries, so I know how cumbersome some things used to be (although we didn’t know it).
But we have little, if any, say about who uses our personal information. An NBC report found that in Europe people trust government more than corporations, which is why they put more restrictions on what businesses can do with our information. Americans trust corporations more than government, so businesses have few restrictions on what they can do with the data they collect.
There is one piece of good news: Apple now allows users to download their data from the company and makes it possible for them to opt out of Apple’s notices and ads. This follows an EU mandate requiring it for its citizens. I hope it’s not too little, too late.