There’s somebody watching you right now. That’s right. Right now. They’ve been watching you and they will continue to watch you. But who even are they? Many of us may fear the idea of unwarranted surveillance by the United States government. However, it’s your Alexa, Google search engine and iPhone you need to fear. U.S. technology and social media companies already gather vast amounts of information regarding the inner workings of your daily life every time you use their products and services. All for one simple goal: increasing profits. Even though they might see you reading this now, at least they’ll know the gig is up.
How Did We Get Here?
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s — the early days of Silicon Valley — tech start-ups and budding social media platforms could not figure out how to generate earnings from their newly-founded digital services. At the time, Silicon Valley executives and engineers alike considered data entered into search engines, which reveal information about one’s hobbies, interests and preferences, as waste material with no practical application. It would not be long before Silicon Valley would realize the power this residual data could have.
The early leaders at Google originally despised advertising and hoped to keep advertisements off their platform. However, the company began to feel pressure from initial investors to increase profit margins over the course of the early 2000s. Consequently, Google’s engineers started to develop behavioral models that could predict whether or not certain users would click on digital advertisements.
Pujan Patel, a senior majoring in political science and sociology, attributes the rise of predictive models for advertising purposes to the decisions of Google’s pioneers.
“Google set the stage for this kind of behavior,” said Patel. “In 2004, Google launched their email service, Gmail, which shortly thereafter generated controversy by scanning consumers’ emails and then feeding back personalized advertising.”
By the late 2000s and early 2010s, residual behavioral data became the quintessential material for profit-generating ventures online. Thus, surveillance capitalism, which is the monetization of data captured through observing people’s behaviors online and offline, was born.
Professor Narine Weldon, a full-time lecturer at the University of Miami School of Law and a professor of ethics and technology at the College of Engineering, argues that the sale of information relating to users’ online behavior has become the prevailing profit model for the majority of current technology and social media conglomerates.
“Companies have created and profited from the attention or engagement economy where your data and key swipes are the actual product,” said Professor Weldon. “Companies learn about us through what we research online, what sites we look up, how often and how long we engage and then use that data to sell to advertisers, pollsters and market researchers.”
What’s The Big Deal?
At this point, you may be wondering why you should even care in the first place. Does it really matter if companies use data to make predictions for advertisers and marketers? Not necessarily.
However, problems arise when apparent online convenience discourages individuals from complaining about, noticing or questioning the use of their data. To add insult to injury, Silicon Valley attempts to mask the data collection and transaction processes with public claims of prioritizing the privacy of individuals who use their products and services. Patel contends that most people lack the essential knowledge about companies’ usage of behavioral data to comprehend the far-reaching influence of surveillance capitalist behaviors.
“Many individuals who don’t keep up with current events in the tech sphere may not even fully understand the amount and kind of data companies retain from them,” said Patel. “It may be shocking to some to see the profile cultivated on themselves by these platforms and who has access can be even scarier to think about.”
Furthermore, social media corporations and other digital service providers create elaborate terms and conditions that leave little room for negotiation on the user’s end. Essentially, individuals who do not provide their consent lose access to the entirety of the product or service in question.
Professor Weldon believes most Americans ignore service agreements that could help individuals gain some understanding of what happens to their data and who is responsible for its use.
“Most social media users don’t read privacy notices or terms of service. In the United States, we tend to accept all cookies on a site so we can just get to what we want to see,” said Professor Weldon. “We don’t have as strong of a privacy culture as citizens in the rest of the world.”
Maybe It’s Not All Bad?
Nevertheless, some may argue that surveillance capitalism simply represents the natural evolution of advertising and marketing strategies in a digital world where technological advancements occur within the blink of an eye.
If demand exists for access to behavioral data, shouldn’t social media platforms and other technology firms have the right to sell it?
Professor Carlos Erban, a lecturer of digital marketing at the UM’s Herbert Business School, asserts that advertisers have historically inserted themselves into popular media used by the majority of consumers. In Erban’s view, the internet has become the newest in a long line of media utilized by businesses for consumer marketing and research.
“What people see and what people interact with, advertisers are always going to be there. In the past, [advertisers] used to call this ‘eyeballs,’” said Erban. “There are always going to be new things, probably new things we haven’t even thought of, where advertisers are going to pop up.”
Furthermore, all industries possess their own sets of ethical dilemmas and issues. No industry can simultaneously provide 100 percent benefit to both consumers and laborers. For example, most U.S. consumers engage in fast fashion without thinking twice about the child laborers who allegedly make the garments because consumers benefit from the low costs associated with fast fashion items.
Using the same logic, one could assume that most Americans do not mind being constantly tracked online because they see benefit in having access to targeted advertisements designed specifically for them and hope to avoid irrelevant digital content. Erban echoes similar sentiments and explains a trade-off exists when choosing virtual anonymity.
“There is always the possibility of having bad actors using data for the wrong reasons. You can use Incognito mode and change all of your privacy settings to ensure your data is not tracked,” said Erban. “But that doesn’t mean you’re going to get zero advertising, just completely irrelevant advertising. If I’m going to get advertising anyways, I might as well get advertising that is relevant to me.”
When companies create an ad campaign, they can choose to have their ads appear to a target demographic. It can be as general as “athletic” or “goth,” to even as specific as “middle-aged mother who lives in suburbia and likes coffee.” If your recent online actions resemble the market they’re going for, websites like Google and other online retailers will push their marketing on you.
It doesn’t stop there; your recent data is compared with your past data to pick out certain patterns. For example, they look at specific brands you favor, if there is a time you usually shop, how willing you are to go to different websites.
The algorithm goes deeper and can possibly predict what you might buy next. If you bought plane tickets, you might get hotel offers in the area, and if you were searching up how to deal with pregnancy you might start to get ads for baby clothes.
How are they allowed to do this? Well, it’s usually placed somewhere in that long block of text next to the “accept cookies” button that you blindly click. You’re not signing your life away, but it allows them to create, keep and cultivate that digital footprint of yours to further personalize your ads and digital experience.
Data Protection For Dummies
Considering all this information, you may find yourself wondering how you can protect yourself when using the Internet. Here are some tips to ensure your data remains secure when surfing the web and out of the hands of advertisers.
- Browse in Incognito mode — When browsing in Incognito mode, no browsing history is recorded, nor can websites retain cookies left behind by your activity in Incognito mode.
- Change your privacy settings — Through simply adjusting your privacy settings, you can prevent websites from tracking aspects of your online usage such as your daily activity or your location.
- Download a VPN — A VPN, or a virtual private network, encrypts all of your activity on the internet in an anonymous channel that websites cannot track. Using a VPN goes a step beyond browsing in Incognito mode and allows you to completely hide your virtual identity.
- Remove unused applications and extensions — Applications and extensions can track your online activity, even if you have not used them in days, weeks and months. By deleting applications and extensions you don’t frequently use, you can reduce the number of platforms attempting to track you.
words_andrew mccleskey & sal puma. illustration_rachel farinas. design_gaelle charlet.
This article was published in Distraction’s Fall 2023 print issue.
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