April 1, 2018
The New York Times reported today that Amazon and Google are applying for patents to be able to legally listen in to random conversations through your home-based and mobile devices. Coming close on the heels of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytics data breach, this rather darkly adds to the growing unease with the sense that we’re all being spied on. And let’s face it: we are being spied on—and we have been for a long time.
Jaron Lanier (named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in the 2010 TIME 100 list) articulated the consequences of our casual sharing of information online in his 2013 book, Who Owns The Future? That was long ago in terms of digital history, yet he made it clear then that all the information being shared (to platforms like Facebook and to companies who collect data like Amazon and Google) is being aggregated with potential to be used for purposes beyond the information-giver’s intentions; that those in control of the data that is gathered are in a position to profit greatly while you, the data-provider, have given up your information for free.
That’s the conundrum we are still facing. The delight with which we have embraced digital services that have reduced our physical workload, lowered costs and generally made life easier has been a delight based on often-blinkered vision.
The data that we’ve offered freely was the first bit of this: sharing on Facebook, searching on Google, shopping on Amazon—all of this has created a pool of over-simplified data that can sweep us into an iterative process of being targeted and returning further over-simplified data. The potential for that data to concentrate wealth and power is being used in ever more sophisticated ways (and those who have the technology and our data are not distributing the benefits benignly, despite their official mission statements).
We have continued, nevertheless, to ignore the obvious downside in the name of expediency: we have shopped on Amazon despite the fact that the company puts many people out of work and reduces many of its employees to poor working conditions at low pay. We have continued searching on Google even though it’s no longer easy to find the organic search results beneath all the paid advertising. We might also continue using Facebook despite their recent egregious exploitation of our trust. We’re just so invested in the benefits we’ve come to enjoy, we wishfully hope nothing really bad will happen. Even when it already has.
We’ve already had a U.S. election that was compromised by Facebook’s breach—and this was under Facebook leadership that purports to be socially-conscious, having the simple goal of helping people stay connected and build community. I’m inclined to trust Google’s leadership more than Facebook’s at the current time but there’s nothing about history that suggests it’s impossible that Google could be aggressively taken over by a totalitarian regime. And right now Google and Amazon are both exploring patents to be legally allowed to surreptitiously listen to you using “voice-sniffer algorithms” in devices in and outside your home?
It’s not as if this is not possible already. We know that the cameras in our laptops and mobile devices can be turned on to watch us by hackers, that the multiple microphones in our audio-enabled devices can all be turned on by hackers to listen to us, that our smart household devices (laundry machines, stoves, fridges, etc) have computers that hackers can access to track when we are at home and when we are not. And are these things happening? Definitely—and Edward Snowden has alerted us to the reality that it’s not just kids trying out their hacking skills; people at high-level security security agencies do this with ease, as do people in the deep crime underworld.
There are some who shrug this off with an “I’ve nothing to hide” approach. That would be fine if you could guarantee that those who mine your information were powerless or benign. But there’s clearly no such guarantee. In the wrong hands or in a different political climate, your data can be used against you. Consider the plight of the Dreamers in the USA: under President Obama those who qualified as Dreamers might have felt safe to post on Facebook that they welcomed the DACA program, that it gave them hope; under the next president those joyful posts could be the key to their deportation. And it’s too late now for #deleteFacebook to solve the problem we have.
Amazon and Google, in exploring patents to legally eavesdrop on our lives without our specific consent are no doubt doing so for the official purpose of serving us better (with better ad-targeting—not, in itself, a bad thing). But we live in a world where good and bad use the same tools, and we need protections in place that we can trust.
The link to the book Who Owns The Future? by Jaron Lanier is an Amazon affiliate link. If you purchase the book via my link, a tiny portion of Amazon’s profit will come to me rather than to Amazon. If you purchase the book at a local indie bookstore, better yet: none of the profit will go to the company that wants to eavesdrop on the conversations in your home.