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20 September 2019 - 10 minute read
Those of you with any understanding of privacy at all aren't likely to gain a tremendous amount from this post. I want to target this more towards those that may not feel like they understand privacy much, or simply don't care. So, are you listening? Because I've got some tough news for you.
In not protecting your own privacy, you harm the privacy of everyone around you. You might not mind Google and Facebook listening to everything you say, watching everything you do, and turning all that information back at you in the form of manipulative content and UX with the sole purpose of exploitation for economic and political gains, but you are going to meet people that will, and they're probably not going to be so happy trying to have a conversation with you when your spyware-riddled phone is sat on the table, watching and listening. People abstain from using such devices and services and often avoid or outright refuse to be near those that don't for very good reason: such devices are malicious, breach human privacy rights, and harm everyone unfortunate enough to be on their receiving end. Like cigarettes, you might not care that they cause horrendous damage to your own health, but they cause damage to the health of everyone nearby, and not respecting that people don't want that is fairly often referred to as being a "massive arsehole".
"But I've got nothing to hide, and neither should the people around me." Ok, firstly, shut up. Think of a person, and now imagine you telling that person absolutely anything he/she might want to know about you - from meals to toilet usage, fears, dreams, fetishes, opinions on your friends and family, political views, hobbies, sex life, purchases (all of them), accounts on websites (again, all of them), your body, the files on your computer or phone, anything. This person could be anyone. Partner, child, parent, friend, enemy, stranger, boss, employee, anyone. If you absolutely cannot find anything about yourself that you wouldn't tell to at least 1 of these people, then you're either lying to yourself or are an empty shell of a human, completely void of imagination, wit, and free will. Now try the same process in reverse. Imagine another person, which again could be anyone. Now, think of any number of questions and queries about this person that he/she would not want you to know. Ask to see all the files on his/her computer, all of his/her accounts on every website, every suggestive thought he/she has in excruciating detail, everything. Feels uncomfortable right? Having completely unfettered access to everything about a person. How do you think this person would feel? Now how do you feel considering that the likes of Google and Facebook have exactly this kind of access into your life?
"But Facebook is just social media. What would they even need all this information for?" Do you know how Facebook (and Google) earn their money? You never pay a penny to have a Facebook account or to use Google's search engine or to have a GMail account. Their customers pay plenty though. You don't give them any money, so you're not a customer. Your wants and needs are far from primary. These companies' real customers are advertisers, and these advertisers are out to maximise their earnings, and that is Facebook and Google's businesses.
You've most likely heard the phrase "knowledge is power", and it's an accurate assertion. The more you know about something (or in this case someone), the more control you have over it. If you don't know anything about someone, it's very hard to effectively assert control over than person as you have no basis on which to determine the best means of doing so. If however you know almost everything about someone, you're going to know exactly how best to manipulate and control that person into doing exactly what you want. Facebook and Google sell their ability to manipulate their "users'" behaviour in order to maximise revenue. Ever noticed how all the feeds and timelines on things like Facebook and Twitter are never ordered chronologically? And if you want a chronological view, you have to wade through drop downs and often can't even set it as default? That's because chronological ordering is terrible for control as there is none. Using the available posts to place into a feed combined with the finely detailed model of you and your behaviours and the constant stream of new information from you as you go about your day, Facebook and Google can arrange posts and search results in such a way that it nudges you towards being most vulnerable to manipulative advertising, and selects the time to present the ad down to the second, all while you scroll absent-mindedly through your feed. This can have damaging effects beyond just making you spend more money though. Cambridge Analytica famously worked with Facebook to try and manipulate election results, undermining the very point of the democratic process.
This morning, one of my colleagues received a package containing a Google home hub. Yes, one of those disgusting little screens that listens in on everything that happens within earshot of it and sends everything off to Google. His plan is to write an application for it that will let him control some of our deployment tools from it - mostly just for fun. I of course wasn't happy at all about this. If there's going to be this spying device in the office where I work, just metres away from my desk, then I'm going to have to either be completely silent or work somewhere else. Knowing that I care about privacy, getting the thing in the first place I found somewhat disrespectful, but during my brief exchange with him, this was his explanation of his idea of privacy:
I guess it's just personal preference dude. Like I say, you're totally entitled to your own opinion and all. Personally, I just don't think there's anything about my life and conversations that anyone would really find that interesting. And to be honest I don't really care if they do. Basically, anyone monitoring my activity is going to see a lot of car/dog pictures, and infrequent internet searches for 'naked angela scanlon'. They can come along for the ride if they really want, but frankly I'd be surprised if anyone was that fussed.
I have a tremendous number of objections to this comment. Firstly, reducing fundamental human privacy rights to mere "preference" or "opinion" is wrong. The right to vote isn't a preference, the right to a fair trial isn't a preference, and neither is the right to privacy. This ignorance of the issue in both its scale and implications is clearly the root of this mindset. No, you may not think your activities are especially interesting, but these companies absolutely are "fussed" enough to log and track every last byte of it. Surveillance capitalism employs "radical indifference" as Shoshana Zuboff calls it. These companies couldn't care less what you get up to, as long as they can have complete access to everything about you, because no matter what your interests are: if you use these "services", then you are fair game for automated targeted manipulation and herding towards your most profitable self. Unlike the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, surveillance capitalists don't have any single vision of the ideal person that all humans must tend towards. Instead, they only require that you submit to their devices, apps, and platforms so that you may be of as much profit as possible. You may not need to change any of your political views - only lose your humanity.
In much the same way that climate change threatens nature, surveillance capitalism threatens human nature. As a society, we must do everything in our power to stop both of these dystopic forces, and this kind of self-destructive mindset worsens the problem for everyone. To support privacy abuse is to do a disservice to yourself and everyone you love, and it baffles me that anyone could be so cruel as to be happy to do that.
Ignorance can be forgiven provided it is recognised and acted upon. Someone that might have previously had the mindset of my colleague but has since gained a better understanding of privacy and has at the very least started to act upon it by moving away from privacy-abusing platforms and attempting to help others off them too deserves a lot of credit as it is hard work to help educate people and bring them off platforms that they might have been on for very long times and not see any immediate issues with. Those however that refuse to acknowledge the harm they are doing should be ashamed, and we should put as much pressure on these people as possible to cease the harm they are doing to everyone around them.
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Copyright Oliver Ayre 2019. Site licensed under the GNU Affero General Public Licence version 3 (AGPLv3).