The 21st-century world marks promises for all generations. New technology is practically being discovered every day, from breakthroughs in biomedical technology that can help people take better care of their health to smarter and faster security systems that can protect many families every day and night. The growth of technology also marks the growth of supply, and once top businessmen and women in tech companies hear about the technology and impacts, they will not rest until their product is on the market and in consumers’ hands. However, with fewer people responding to email surveys and pamphlets sent out by companies (even if they are offered a 10% discount), companies are not able to gather the information they need to sustain their advertising department and moreover, their products. So where do companies turn to? They turn to the place which initially causes the problem – a certain piece of technology that marked the current Technology Era – the Internet.
In a normal Internet consumer’s day, they may run across many different websites that are taking their personal data and using it for their or a client companies’ gains. How does this all happen without the consumer knowing or suspecting this invasion of privacy? For starters, one must consider Google Chrome. Chrome is based on a consumer’s activity and how they choose to use the Internet. For example, Chrome may ask the consumer to log into a Google Mail account, which contains information including name, age, date of birth, and possibly phone number. From there, the consumer may proceed to search on Google, the largest search provider in the world. Whether the consumer is trying to look for a new pasta recipe or showtimes for the new Star Wars movie, Google is able to collect the data through a process called Google Page Rank. Google Page Rank uses a carefully calculated linear algebra-based algorithm derived from data over the previous years. Once Google has a taste of what the consumer likes based on past searches, the database is then able to gather even more data. This data based on the consumer logging into his email and completing a web search from its other services such as Youtube. Other websites, such as Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix, also use similar processes to collect user data. All together, these four companies are referred to as FANG and are some of the worlds’ most visited services. Bruce Schneier, a fellow with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, describes surveillance as “the business model of the Internet.”
“We’re the product, not the consumers,” claims Schneier.
What’s surprising is that consumers constantly run into hints that these companies are taking their information. For example, a person who is searching deals on Amazon on different sofas might conveniently run across an ad on Facebook that shows a deal in the local retail store. Or, a person who was watching Stranger Things, a popular science fiction show, may find the most random advertisement for an upcoming zombie movie on another website that allows cookies. It is frightening how often the general consumer population tends to fall for fake advertisements and inadvertently give more information which the outside world may phish. Even the most innocent websites can be a path into falling down a dark hole and risking threat to privacy. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 36% of net users have looked for online support for mental health issues and 24% have signed up with their name and email address. One dark story includes a woman who lived in North Hampshire who was killed after a stalker purchased her social security number from an online information firm.
With the dangers of online information evident, the law has sometimes taken matters into its own hands, even if it risks losing big companies and their ticket to advertising victory. Microsoft and Intel have taken off features that would have been able to track customers across the Internet. In another example, on April 3rd, 2017, the president signed S.J. Rees. 34 which nullified the Federal Communications Commission’s rule on “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services.” However, according to the FCC, the rule never went into effect. Some people claim that the ruling was necessary, as Internet Service Providers have full access to information, whereas FANG has access to only some websites. In addition, because consumers pay for Internet Services, the buyers should expect a few privacy options.
If any more action in the future were to take place, it would be based on whether or not cyber-manipulation is unfair. It is obviously alarming that Google is less trustworthy than the next door neighbor; however, if the Federal Trade Commission steps in, “it can prohibit a lot of these practices” according to Scheiner. Everything goes back to government and people interaction. It was once said by John Locke that the government comes from the consent of the people. In today’s United States, there seems to be a reverse effect. More people tend to trust the government rather than corporations, whereas in Europe, the results are different. This is one of the main reasons why Europe has more stringent laws on privacy regulation than the States. However, consumers don’t always have the choice of whether to accept this intrusion, as they are powerless in the face of online payments and online registration forms.
“I used to say that Google knows more about me than my wife does, but that doesn’t go far enough. Google knows me even better because Google has a perfect memory in a way that many people don’t,” says Scheiner. He follows up by advising that the best way for people to get involved in the security process is not by implementing security measures but by engaging in the political process.
Mineo, Liz. “On Internet Privacy, Be Very Afraid.” Harvard Gazette, 24 Aug 2017.
Palmer, Shelly. “Internet Privacy 2017: What You Need to Know.” 5 Apr. 2017.
Sullivan, Bob. “Online Privacy Fears Are Real. More People Are Tracking You Than You Think.”