Welcome to the era of privacy nihilism

Published on August 24, 2019

Welcome to the era of privacy nihilism

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/08/the-age-of-privacy-nihilism-is-here/568198/
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It's easy to put the blame on Google and Facebook, but in fact, companies have collected, sold and reused our personal data for decades, and now that the public has finally noticed, it's too late. The privacy war is long over, and we lost.


The natural gas field in Dervez (Turkmenistan) collapsed into an underground cave, creating a continuously burning crater with a diameter of 69 m. It is called the “Gate to Hell”. Photo: Giles Clarke / Getty

The barista burns at work, buys burn cream at the Target store, and later that day sees an ad for this product on Facebook. In another Target, someone shouts to a comrade to take Red Bull; on the way home, Instagram displays a sponsorship message with this drink. A woman is engaged in baking and exclaims out loud that it would be good to buy a KitchenAid mixer - and in a few moments she sees an advertisement on the phone. Two friends talk about recent trips to Japan, and soon one of them offer discounted tickets. The airport security confiscated a perfume bottle from the girl, and on arrival she sees an advertisement for local perfumery stores on Facebook. These are just some of the manystrange coincidences that cause modern users an unpleasant sense of surveillance and loss of privacy. Causes are sometimes harmless and sometimes not. As these technologies come to light, some of them require regulatory or legal regulation.

But none of this is new and unique for modern IT companies. Online services are only accelerating and increasing the impact of data collection methods that have existed for decades. Companies have long collected your personal data, with or without your permission: from employers, from state archives, from purchases, banking, from the education system and from hundreds of other sources. They combined, recombined, bought and sold this data. Collected and processed data is more useful than scattered across thousands of databases. All your actions were recorded, chewed and spat on you to benefit the sellers, advertisers and brokers who serve them. This has been happening for a long time, and the system is not going to stop. The era of privacy nihilism has come,



Many people are still sure that their smartphones are listening - recording conversations in the background, and then secretly uploading to Facebook or Google. Facebook is blamed more often than others: probably because its service (including Instagram) is very popular, and ads are so easy to notice. The company denies this every time , and research has proven that this is technically impossible. But the idea lives on .

It persists because it looks believable and because it is true in spirit, not literally. Facebook and Google may not literally listen to our conversations, but they bugged our lives. These companies have so much data about so many people, and they can analyze them in so many ways that they could control our conversations as well. Traveling to another city, looking for a restaurant? It's not just that Facebook or Google know where you are and what you are looking for. They also know whether you are gourmet or stingy, if you like Korean meat or Polish dumplings, and what your demography says about your income, and therefore your budget.

Technology companies collect data in unexpected and sometimes deceptive ways. One example is a disaster.Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. More recently, a report based on a study by Vanderbilt University suggested that Google collects or analyzes a wealth of information about its users on the basis of web pages, media reading, location, shopping, etc. - sometimes even without user interaction. . Location data is especially intensively collected: with Android smartphones, user coordinates are transmitted more than 300 times over a 24-hour period, even if the user has disabled the location history in the device settings. The study also showsthat the incognito mode in Google Chrome, which promises to hide user information from websites while browsing, still allows Google to connect these supposedly hidden visits to its own internal user profile.

Such revelations gave rise to a class action lawsuit against the company. I would like to believe that supervision, regulation, or legal consequences will ultimately prevent or even change the way technology companies collect and manage data. This hope comes to life thanks to the social pressure on tech-giants for the past year or more. But it ignores the fact that the thirst for spying on users by Google and Facebook has evolved in the context of a widespread, long-term practice of data analysis.

For years, companies collected, bought and sold this data, honing their marketing and sales skills. But with the growth of large IT companies, the rates have risen. Secret data collection is now centralized globally. Now a group of computer geeks knows everything you say, do, dream and desire - even that which you are ashamed to admit to yourself. Manipulations with data used to be shameful, shady business. Now it is mainstream. Technology companies are not ashamed of the empires they built and the money they earned this way. On the contrary, they relish the profits that are squeezed out of your private data - and they do it in the open. Worse gangster who acts out of malice, can only be the one who steals your secrets and does not feel anything at the same time.



Since you can save all the records, companies have long begun to use and benefit from the available information. The term "business analyst" was introduced back in 1865, in the book by Richard Miller Devens, Encyclopedia of Commercial and Business Stories ( Cyclopaedia of Commercial and Business Anecdotes ). Starting from the 17th century, Devens studied how merchants and bankers benefit from access to information (about war, competitors, weather, and so on).

Almost a century later, in 1958, IBM engineer Hans Peter Lun adaptedthis concept is for the information age. By that time, IBM machines had facilitated business analytics, but Lun identified the most intractable problems: receiving and storing data is only the beginning, they need to be extracted and analyzed. To solve these problems will take several decades.

The most significant progress was made in 1969, when computer scientist Edgar F. Codd, also from IBM, developed a new paradigm for data storage and processing. "Relational Model"Codd was soon embodied in software products known as relational databases, which since 1978 have been sold by IBM and others. Relational databases make it easy to query for large and diverse data sets. Sales can be analyzed by region and supplier. Rate conversion for potential customers. Individual actions of specific customers can be combined into templates. And all this is done quickly, with the connection of the latest information.

After that, almost all of the essential corporate programs of the next decade — most of which ordinary people never thought of or saw — were built on the idea of ​​relational databases. Oracle has been selling its popular software since 1979. She and other companies, including IBM, Microsoft, SAP, PeopleSoft and Google, have created new corporate products that use a relational database as a platform. These products are still relevant. Software for enterprise resource planning monitors and manages business operations. Customer relationship management software tracks sales and marketing activities. Supply chain management systems help manage the flow of components and raw materials for production and distribution. To this day, the ordinary life of people is based on these systems. If you get paid, If you order goods on Amazon or own a smartphone assembled from individual parts, then you are the beneficiary of the industrial complex of relational databases. And the victim too: since the 1980s, companies have been using these systems to store information, who you are and what you do.



But for a long time, this information was scattered in different repositories. Your bank or your car manufacturer may know how much money you have or what kind of car you drive, but the data is isolated in separate systems in individual organizations. A supermarket chain may know how well a particular product line is sold in a particular region, but it knows little about who buys them and why.

But then organizations found ways to collect and recombine information of all kinds. Equifax, Experian and Transunion national credit bureaus became one of the data sources, selling access to their information for almost any purpose, including marketing (although legal and operational changes over time banned some of these practices). The growing popularity of credit cards, debit cards and electronic payment systems has facilitated the collection of sales information and the linking of various purchases with specific customers. Discount cards like those that you use in a supermarket or pharmacy, offer "discounts" in exchange for constant surveillance with reference to the address and phone number. Under the guise of loyalty programs, these efforts are aimed solely and exclusively at gathering information.

Data brokers began to collect and sell data of a certain type, such as lists of prospects for sales of certain categories of goods. Companies acquired these lists, installed them in their corporate systems, and then compared new external data with existing information. Together, these factors shook the foundation of privacy long before the advent of Google and Facebook.



In 2012, Charles Duigigg published a crucial article, “How companies will know your secrets,” about how the Target statistician team developed algorithms to predict customer behavior.

From the NY Times 2012 article:

Once a man entered a Target store and demanded to call a manager. In his hands, he squeezed a huge pile of store coupons received by his daughter.

“My daughter received it in the mail! He shouted. - She still goes to school, and you send her coupons for children's clothing and diapers? How dare you! Do you want to encourage schoolgirls to give birth in this way? ”The

manager looked at the bundle of coupons for maternal clothes, children's furniture - indeed, they were addressed to the daughter of an angry man. The manager apologized.

A few days later he called the man to apologize again. On the phone the voice of the father sounded bewildered. “You know, I seriously talked to my daughter, and it turned out that something was happening in my house that I had no idea at all. She gives birth in August. Please accept my apologies".

How did Target know that her daughter was pregnant before her father knew about it? The answer is simple - thanks to the pregnancy prediction system, developed by Andrew Paul, an analyst at the company.

“If we want to find out if our customer is pregnant, even if she wants to hide it, how to do it?”, This was the question the marketing team Target asked in 2002, before Google entered the stock exchange and before Facebook at all appeared. The company began to link all customer interactions — purchases, emails, surveys, coupon usage — with each client's unique ID (Guest ID). “Target also bought data from brokers, including consumer habits, political bias, financial trends and more, and attached them to the Guest ID. The result allowed the company to make predictions about future consumer habits and process them accordingly. Target was not alone in this practice.

The result seemed as eerie as today's Facebook surveillance. More than five years ago, my Atlantic magazine colleague Alexis Madrigal tried to figure out why he started receiving children's catalogs by mail before he and his wife told anyone that they would have a child. He tracked the catalog to a data broker, who explained that previous purchases of gifts for nieces and nephews had marked his family as consumers of children's clothing, goods and toys. That is why catalogs came; the fact of pregnancy turned out to be a coincidence: “There was no evil machine that was one step ahead of our own desires,” Madrigal wrote.

This is true for most of today's supernatural coincidences that people try to explain by conspiracy of total surveillance. Anyone who shouted at the store to take the Red Bull, probably before buying Red Bull. Buying international air tickets already marks a person as a traveler, who is likely to make such a purchase again. If someone kneads the dough with his own hands, he probably made other purchases (or visited websites) that make the KitchenAid mixer an obvious coincidence.

KitchenAid advertising or the children's catalog looks different and new, because something has changed in the world of privacy. First, in the past few decades, data trade has steadily expanded. In 2014, ProPublica published an extensive study.various information about individual citizens that companies buy and sell. The private data trade is so advanced that the stories seem almost fictional. Lists of readers of love stories are on sale. Lists of those who donated to international charities. Divorced. Equifax Credit Bureau receives payroll data from many companies in exchange for employment verification services. And so on. If your brain is able to come up with some kind of list - almost certainly there is a source of data for this that someone sells and buys.

But more importantly, the speed at which information is received and correlated has increased dramatically. Web browsers and smartphones contribute to the amount and cost of data processing. The accuracy of the location information that Google slowly gathers allows companies to connect with specific locations where users go shopping, seek medical help, or walk. These places are related to other activities before or after, such as a web search before leaving or watching a video on YouTube. The entire Facebook business model is based on this information and allows marketers to compare it with their own data. The current criticism has forced the company to rethink some of these practices, including discriminatory advertising targeting, but this is only a small obstacle to the overall trend.

Correlations have also become more complex. Venture investor Benedict Evans recently convincingly proved that machine learning can in the future have a strong impact on human life, just like relational databases in the early 1970s. At first glance, strange connections are actually “outliers,” because it is them that we notice. How about everything else that goes unnoticed and binds behavior in ways people don’t even imagine? These are the connections that promises to find machine learning.

Centralization of information has also increased. With billions of users around the world, organizations like Facebook and Google can offer much more data and benefit from it. Corporate services are also decentralized, and more data has moved to the cloud, which often simply means in the hands of large technology firms such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon. Externalization of this data creates a threat to privacy . But this threat is also in local storage, where companies are subject to hacking, as happened with Equifax last year.



The real difference between the old marketing with the invasion of privacy and new marketing is not in data collection (data collection has been used for a long time), but in the fact that many people finally realized what was happening. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, recent Google articles and related events have helped educate the public, but not as much as the barrage of instantly correlated advertising in applications and on web pages. Paper mail arrives once a day, but at the same time, people see hundreds or thousands of new versions of their own personal information on the Internet. Large, dubious IT companies easily and reasonably fall under suspicion, but the true reason is more than half a century of development of business intelligence technicians who have been honed, tested and improved secretly from everyone. Google and Facebook are just the tip of an old, hardened iceberg.

This means simple tips, like limiting the information you provide to Facebook and Google., will help only to some extent. Of course, it seems that using the iPhone instead of Android will help to better hide your physical location. Regulation or legal action can also reverse some of the abuses in the data economy. But ultimately it is a lost battle. Are you really going to stop using Google? Or leave Facebook? Or stop browsing the web? Or refuse a smartphone? Or disable location services in the settings? Maybe some people are now capable of this for some time, but the reality of modern life will drive them back into these services. In the end, this will become impossible. If you are not an independent and rich person, you will not be able to refuse loans. Even if you never use a credit card, Your employer may provide your details to credit agencies. You can not refuse from the supermarket, which stores information about each purchase, linking them to each other. It is impossible to refuse the benefits of civilization in real life, no matter how many brows frowned and how many tweets published about it.

Very easy and comfortable to blame Googlein the current state of affairs. We create a scarecrow and fight a "villain" who seems to be a worthy enemy. But the true adversary in privacy violations is not a particular villain from the comic, who can be cornered, exposed and conquered. In fact, the true enemy is the misty murk, the soul-chilling Lovecrafty whisper, it is impossible to see it, not to mention touch, not to mention victory. Even the “cloud” is an incorrect metaphor, because pumping out gaseous poison only causes a new cold draft from invisible sources. If not sites, then pharmaceuticals. If not location data, then household goods. If not likes, then bank accounts and demographics of areas. Your data is everywhere, and nowhere, and it is impossible to change the situation and avoid what they can do for you.