"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Personal Privacy Has All But Disappeared - But The Worst Is Yet To Come

For years social media companies like Facebook and Instagram have been able to mine user data and sell it to private companies.  Holiday Inn or Hilton for example, used to relying on low-response client satisfaction surveys for information on its facilities and service performance can now have access to hundreds of times the amount of information but this time pre-analyzed and sifted through sentient software.   Two friends discussing their Holiday Inn experience, even speaking in slang, can tell the hotel company what they really thought about the beds, lighting, or bathrooms.

Yahoo reads and records every email generated through its service, and can sell relevant information to private companies. If the same two friends are talking about their mutual interest in Persian carpets, they will be surprised – and hopefully pleased  - to see ads from local merchants.

Netflix knows all about every user’s preferences – when a viewer turns down the sound during a movie; how long he pauses the movie or repeats a scene.  Through sophisticated data analysis Netflix can deduce what you like and don’t like – not just the sex or action scenes, but pace and color; voice timber, volume, and quality.  Based on this information collected from hundreds of millions of viewers on billions of movies watched, the company can – and has – produced its own movies based on consumer response.

Amazon knows what books, tea, and appliances you have bought over the years, and can glean from these purchases which you might be likely to buy in the future.  Very specific, targeted ads will always show up whenever you go to the site.

All this is old hat.  Everyone knows that their social communications and purchases are monitored, recorded, and sold.  Yesterday (3.28.17) , however, the issue of consumer privacy – or lack thereof – entered new, expected, but still unsettling new territory.  The United States Congress passed a bill which allows any server (e.g. Verizon, ATT) to have complete access to any information generated on the Internet. 

Verizon and ATT will be able to have access to any and all transactions undertaken including bank transfers, mortgage payments, all accounts, credit records, etc. and be able to sell this information to anyone who is willing to buy it.

Up until yesterday servers operated under much stricter laws than individual online companies.  Because they could have access to all transactions – i.e. those of Amazon, Netflix – social media communications, and all financial exchanges (money transfers, stock sales, investments, etc.) and had extraordinary power, they were regulated much more strictly.  They could not, for example, bundle information gathered and sell the whole package to a buyer.

Now they can do whatever they want with the information generated over their lines and are under no obligation to tell consumers what they are doing.

Although at first glance it may seem surprising that a Republican-controlled Congress would act so quickly and easily to permit what many see as a violation of First Amendment rights, upon closer inspection it is not.  There are billions of dollars to be made by private businesses which thrive on market research and consumer information.   It was not enough that companies like Amazon could track consumer purchases and build sophisticated profiles of buying behavior.  Now they construct a vastly expanded and enriched profile, one which includes income, net worth, debt, health status, and much more.

As unsettling as this is, it is only the next step in a continuing movement to limit individual privacy.  Of course, we the consumers, are complicit.  We love our cookies and are quite happy to have marketers tailor-make ads so that we have to see fewer of them.   We are satisfied that there are CCTV cameras everywhere to deter crime and terrorism.  We no longer can do without GPS as a means of getting around and locating friends.

Since passwords are becoming too numerous to manage, we are happy than retinal scans, fingerprints, and sophisticated voice recognition tools will take their place.  Look into the lens, and you are cleared.

Why stop there?  Scientists are already at work on implantable computer chip technology.  One small subcutaneous skin that can unlock and start your car, open your front door, monitor and transmit your vital signs to your health care provider, scan and pay for items on the grocery shelves, track miles walked and calories burned…..The possibilities are limitless.  Of course just as now everyone will know everything about you.  It is just that they will know far more.

And why stop there? Scientists have already engineered a computer-brain interface, one which will soon enable two-way communication using thought waves between the mind and the computer.  This innovation will be truly transformational.  Eventually every mind will be able to communicate with every other in a virtual world.  Virtuality will replace reality.

And of course whatever is going on in the mind will be public.  Everyone will know our most intimate thoughts, desires, ambitions, and passions.  Pre-crime solutions (viz. Minority Report) will be standard; and marketers will have a field day.

From now on the subject of privacy will take on a very different cast.  The integrity of the individual, his civil rights and liberties, his very identity will all have to be revisited, reassessed, and reconsidered.  A point of no return has been passed.

Why has there been no outcry over the years as our privacy has been violated again and again and in more and more intrusive ways?  Why are we not outraged at the constant surveillance by cameras, online monitoring, face and voice recognition, and 24/7 watching?

For one thing we feel that the War on Terror needs advanced and more universal surveillance tools; and we are happy to give up some personal privacy if we are kept safe.  Second, we are a nation of consumers, and any new means to facilitate our commercial transactions are much appreciated.  For this privilege we are willing to give up our privacy.  Third, the collusion between business and government is as strong as it has ever been; and anything to increase GDP, lower unemployment, and help the country prosper through economic activity is an absolute good.

So, while yesterday’s Congressional decision was indeed a watershed in the annals of personal privacy, it certainly will not be the last.  Unfortunately, it is probably too late to do anything at all to prevent the next one.  The train has already left the station and we hardly have noticed.

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