But it’s not just government eavesdropping that should concern us. The private sector also utilizes such techniques and, because they are not as legally constrained as government use, they may actually pose a bigger threat to our privacy. At the risk of sounding like a paranoid, modern-day Luddite there are many ways we are being monitored and watched, and algorithms are how it’s done.
Simply put, algorithms are computer programs designed to analyze and categorize mass amounts of data. They can be as simple or complex as the desired end result. The most sophisticated algorithms are constructed from a series of smaller, more task-specific algorithms, each responsible for collating material into tinier bits of ever-more useful information. And here’s the unsettling fact: algorithms are used by virtually all digital and social media companies like Facebook, Google, Netflix, etc. Just think; every digital service you subscribe to uses algorithms to monitor you.
Algorithms are also the data-collecting backbone of other monitoring measures, such as:
Next time you drive around town pay close attention to how many traffic cameras are installed on infrastructure such as bridges, road signs, utility poles, etc. More and more these cameras are used to collect vehicle license plate data. The biggest danger may not be that the data is being collected - as most law enforcement agencies rarely have the capability to analyze it in useable detail - but that the data is ripe for hacking or other nefarious uses.
Public Video Cameras
Individual security camera monitoring is now so pervasive that many law enforcement agencies have developed inter-connected webs of these cameras. It’s estimated the City of Chicago has access to over 10,000 public and private cameras which gives them seamless video coverage of endless blocks of some major streets. The case can be made that this is a useful crime-fighting tool. But at what expense to individual liberty?
Your credit card purchasing history is a valuable commodity, so don’t doubt that this data is sold by your credit card vendor to marketers. Bundle that information with other personal habits like computer browsing history or television viewing preferences and this represents a gold-mine of information for advertisers to target you. What’s in your wallet? Indeed.
What, you didn’t know that even your television is in on this monitoring activity? It is if you own a relatively-modern smart TV. Through such televisions your cable service provider – and through them others – can actually watch you if it has a built-in camera. At the very least they can monitor your viewing choices and other uses for the TV. I can only imagine what my channel-flipping habits do to their statistical analysis but I’m sure they have an algorithm for that, too. Creepy, huh? And you just know some corner office bean counter is trying to exploit this monitoring activity because there’s profit in it.
While it’s true that your phone conversations – for the most part - cannot be monitored by government agencies without a legal warrant, this technology only gets more sophisticated and pervasive. Given our increasing reliance on cell phones is there any doubt that it’s only a matter of time before the genie is out of this bottle? Already, with the proper apps on your phone, your location is tracked for the purpose of informing you about all the available purchasing choices you have around you.
Of course this is the primary way in which we are monitored. Almost everything we do on our computer is controlled by a carefully-planned algorithm. Did you know that Gmail and Yahoo actively scan emails for consistent habits and information that can then be used to direct advertising back to your inbox? It’s not a coincidence that your recent messages to friends about needing to get away on vacation resulted in pop-up ads for travel bargains.
Website browsing, emails, social media accounts, even the use of built-in cameras all provide a wealth of information to modern marketers about our choices, desires and needs.
What Can We Do?
Although we’ve long crossed the Rubicon on this issue, and there’s no going back to a non-monitored world, there still are some things we can do to protect ourselves from over-exposure.
At the very least be aware of your activities and understand that you are always under some sort of surveillance. This will keep you mindful of the issue. Other actions to take: whenever possible opt-out of information gathering on your digital services, adjust your online purchasing habits and limit them to non-critical items, think twice about your “click here” habits and try to expand them to include new and diverse options that wouldn’t normally be associated with you, and don’t ever share sensitive personal information over untrustworthy websites or in person-to-person commerce.
Lastly, one good defensive measure is to cover your computer webcam with a small piece of electrical tape when it’s not in use. If not, at least flip the bird at it every once in a while - just in case someone’s watching.