It’s said that information wants to be free—that, like life, it will find a way to replicate itself and show up where you least expect or want it. Your information now has more ways than ever before to spread, from online backups to the private messages your ex-girlfriend archived. But I can tell you this: My information absolutely does not want to be free. It wants to stay home and go out and play only when I give it permission.
Storage space costs next to nothing, and everything you do is recorded forever. That porn site you visited is not just in your browser history; it’s also in the logs of your internet service provider, the DNS server, the content-distribution network, the ad network the site uses, Google Analytics and finally on the actual site you visited. Clearing your browser history only hides it from whoever else uses your devices. If I want to browse the internet, my information has to go out and play, whether I like it or not.
It’s also said that we live in the “golden age of surveillance.” Simply put, surveillance is when an intelligence or law enforcement agency listens in and records traffic, be it voice, data, telemetry, radio, whatever. This is what Edward Snowden revealed.
Think you have a right to privacy? You just gave it away in the terms of service you didn’t read.
If we’re talking freedom, though, I worry most about the collection that companies do on us. Have a mobile phone? Your location data is shared with “partners.” Same with your medical records, home-loan finances, social media pictures. Use any apps that have access to your address book? They just backed it up “for reference purposes.”
This is society’s cost of entry today. Companies must monetize everything about you to help fund their services—services we see as essential to participating in modern society. I can’t pay Facebook $100 a year not to collect info about me; its platform doesn’t work that way. In a Möbius strip of data, we’re both the product and the consumer. Think you have a right to privacy? To paraphrase President Obama, “You don’t own that.” You just gave it away in the terms of service you didn’t read.
The amount of data that companies have about you individually may not be much, but when data brokers aggregate hundreds of companies’ collections, it ends up being way more detailed than what the NSA knows about you. These giant pools are used by advertisers, insurance companies, market researchers…basically anyone who can pay.
Going shopping? Malls, supermarkets and outdoor advertisers collect the MAC (media access control) addresses that your phone broadcasts and use them to track where you go and how long you stand in front of the cookies. It helps businesses optimize their inventory if they know where people linger. Don’t like this? Don’t use a Bluetooth headset, and turn off wi-fi.
It gets worse. Way worse. When the internet of things arrives, add to this list all the data your IOT devices will have on you: the shows, games and songs you enjoy, when you’re home or away, how much energy you use compared with your neighbors, the food you prepare, where and when you drive, your health stats. Talk about your quantified self!
Marketers work hard to put you in a bubble. With their ever-increasing understanding of your behavior and preferences, one of their end goals is to influence you at just the right moment with just the right offer. The more they can influence what you read or watch, the better they can do this.
Your bubble will be personalized to your tastes, like a constant mash-up of Amazon, Netflix and Facebook recommendations. It will steer you toward news stories and articles you’re likely to agree with and enjoy (while viewing all the ads along the way). Your bubble will give you just the right amount of new discovery excitement along with your daily favorites while sharing only that which is in-network. Your bubble will be different from those of your friends, neighbors and bosses. In other words, your bubble will be an all-encompassing field of personalized content enabled by compulsory mass corporate surveillance.
Government didn’t do this to us. The free market did. It costs nothing for an app developer or a company to add a terms-of-service clause giving it permission to collect your information. And all that data is such an attractive nuisance! The perverse thing is that spy agencies and prosecutors don’t need to collect anymore; what they can’t subpoena, they just buy.
What does freedom even mean in this context? The current debate about NSA bulk collection is important, but it’s a sideshow to what’s really happening to our privacy and freedoms in a connected world. That will become clear when a whistle-blower of Snowden’s caliber emerges from Facebook, Google or some other company that makes it their business to collect on all of us.
Cybersecurity expert Jeff Moss, a.k.a. the Dark Tangent, is founder of the event series Black Hat and the global hacker conference DEF CON.