1984 came and went. Many regarded Orwell’s disturbing predictions to be exaggerated, inaccurate, and largely unrealized, but in at least one respect, Orwell’s vision was startlingly prescient – especially in his concern for the privacy of individuals. 30 years after 1984, targeted advertising and digital surveillance have brought the issue of privacy, specifically online privacy, back into the public view. This issue has only increased in importance since the Snowden revelations, when whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed details about government surveillance programs, including NSA’s PRISM. Data-driven approaches may yield numerous benefits, but at what cost to the privacy and civil liberties of users?
Personal data and usage data are ubiquitous in today’s increasingly mobile, shared, and interconnected world. These data, in forms such as text, multimedia, and clicks, are harvested or mined and sold to data brokers, who then algorithmically create profiles of individuals for resale. These profiles are merged between different data sets to form a more complete profile of each user. The motivation for the creation of these user profiles, whether for targeted advertising or a more austere purpose, takes a distant backseat to the concern for the resulting loss of privacy.
Somewhere in the back of our minds lurks the nagging notion that we cannot afford to ignore the dangers of disclosing our personal information, yet we continue to install apps and sign up for web services while rarely bothering to read the terms of service or privacy statements. We click and tap away our rights in exchange for the latest free service; we continue to share information on the web and social media despite being aware of all the potentially negative consequences; we give legal consent for the mining of, and often the sale of, personal user data. In being wooed by the perks of technology, we abandon virtually all concern for our own privacy.
In addition to the slightly unnerving ability to process natural language and make predictions, search giants and software services like Google capture your user data as it passes through their servers. By using their proprietary services—Google Docs, Gmail, YouTube, etc—you consent to their accumulation of your data. Though Google ostensibly attempts to make your experience more relevant and convenient, they in fact have an ulterior motive – they seek to capitalize off your user profile by serving you more relevant advertisements through Google AdWords. Purchasing just one item online can lead to a flood of emails and advertisements with product suggestions the following day.
In addition, shopping services, like Amazon.com, store your searches as browser cookies. If you’re signed in, it links these to your personal customer profile. If you’re not, no worries—Amazon combines your IP address and browser cookies to put a face to your online activity and searches. Of course, someone else may be using your computer. Amazon could get the wrong idea about “you”. The fact that someone using your computer could learn something personal about the actual you simply by observing the advertisements that appear, results in all sorts of concerns that arise as a result of this practice. Amazon doesn’t seem very concerned at all; they want to eventually know enough about you to be able to deliver your package before you buy it. Though some may argue in favor of this supposed increase in convenience, the corporate desire and existing technology for such a level of omniscience should be deeply troubling to us as autonomous human beings.
For example, Target Corporation was able to predict a pregnancy by using predictive analysis algorithms which, based off her trend in purchases, profiled the teen girl as a mother-to-be. They then proceeded to send advertisements and coupons for baby products to her parents’ residence as the girl was still in high school. One can imagine what happened next: “My daughter got this in the mail!” the father said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?” Target apologized profusely, but when calling to apologize yet again a few days later, the father said, “I had a talk with my daughter. It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August.” This family joins millions in falling victim to invasive data-driven advertising practices.
In a remote interview on October 11, 2014, Snowden made several comments on the issue of privacy. He advised individuals to abandon “dangerous services” like Facebook, Dropbox, Amazon, and Google that are “hostile to privacy.” Furthermore, he addressed the common misconception that privacy rights are not an issue if an individual has nothing to hide, stressing instead that “the government should have to justify its intrusion on your rights.” As responsible citizens and autonomous beings, we can, and should, together demonstrate our disapproval of digital surveillance and the invasive practices made possible through data-collection by opting out of these “dangerous services” to which Snowden refers, and instead use alternative services and technologies that are more respectful of user privacy.