Be Seeing You

1 July 2020

Ever feel that you are being watched? You are. Nearly every moment you spend online. What you view, the links you click, and the comments you make are analyzed to build a profile of you. In many cases, you willingly give corporations this information. Most of us do. We do it in exchange for neat things like free email, video conferencing, and online media. It’s all part of a larger trend known as surveillance capitalism. Your personal information has tremendous value, and companies are happy to pay you for it through goods and services.

Big Brother is watching you.

What was once seen as a dystopian nightmare is now just the way the world works. The tools that spy on us are essential to our daily lives.

Take, for example, my typical workday. In the morning, I’ll grab a cup of coffee and check my email (Gmail), check the social media stream (Facebook, Twitter), and then start my daily work. I work remotely (as many do these days) so I typically have a couple of video meetings (Zoom, Skype). I post work online (WordPress) and collaborate with colleagues (Slack). These services are extremely useful, and they make us more productive. But each of these services tracks what you view, and what you post. Even when you aren’t using these services, the tracking continues. Your phone broadcasts your location to cell towers, websites send you cookies, and your ISP analyzes your data.

Some of this tracking and analysis is necessary for a service to function. But much of it is not. It’s also difficult to know what information is being collected. Usually, the details are part of the agreement you make to use a particular service, but that isn’t always the case. Facebook, for example, creates profiles of people who have never signed up with them, through trackers scattered across the websites you view. Google saves your search history even if you aren’t logged in. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others follow you as you surf across the web.

And companies don’t just keep their gathered data to themselves. In March, Google handed over the fitness tracking data of a man who just happened to ride his bicycle past the scene of a crime. Facebook gave personal data to Cambridge Analytica without user’s consent. The data was then used by the Trump campaign and others to build psychographic profiles of potential voters.

Maybe we simply need to accept the fact that privacy is dead. In our hyperconnected world, it simply isn’t possible to keep secrets anymore. As Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google said in 2010, the future is a world with “True transparency and no anonymity.” He argued that in this brave new world, privacy is impossible, perhaps even dangerous and anti-social.

Or maybe we need to push back against the erosion of privacy.

This post marks the first of a series looking at this question. From time to time over the next year, I’ll write about these topics as well as my own experiences as I try to find a balance between public work and private life. Just to be clear, this series will not argue that you should destroy your phone and build a cabin in the woods. I also won’t claim that what I do to find a balance is what you should do.

If anything, this series will be an experiment. Let’s see where it takes us.