Ads, Surveillance and End of Privacy
We are no strangers to the massive amounts of ads we see each day. An average person in an urban city is bombarded with 4000–10000 ads and brand exposures each day. Of course, not all of them get registered in our conscious mind. We don’t even tend to the notice the ones we see each day.
Ads are nothing new, they have been around for a long time. But have you ever thought of how these ads affect us? Advertisements congest, cram and manipulate our brain by affecting our choices. This is done so subtly and amazingly that we, without even realizing attach and associate brands to our values, our festivals and our culture. We unknowingly form preferences and invent needs that never existed before. This is exactly what those companies want.
This may upset you. But don’t worry, this article is not about ads manipulating us, it’s about something much scarier (Sorry! 😜 ). The reason I am writing this article is to shake some digitally ignorant people by their shoulders and inform them about these large companies, which track our actions, our digital behavior and spy on our personal data to make their millions. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, (to name a few) invade our privacy and collect our personal data. This data is sold to companies who subject us to targeted and skillfully crafted ads, ads of products that we are more likely to buy.
Here are two fun activities. First, go to https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity. Secondly, search any product on Amazon. Now open the page of a particular model of that product and look at it for two minutes, then close Amazon and browse the web. It shouldn’t be long before you notice something strange.
In the first case, you would see a history of your places you went to (if you keep your GPS on), a history of the pages you visited, the videos you watched and much more. Remember, this is just the tip of the iceberg. This information you see is just a tiny fraction and that fraction which Google is willing to acknowledge that it stores.
In the second case, you will start noticing the ads for the product you viewed on Amazon on almost every site you visit.
Does this still seem harmless?
If yes, then imagine, you are on a private health website searching about some medical condition and its symptoms. Let say for the sake of the argument that you have that condition. Later, you are casually going through your Facebook you see an ad for a medicine that treats the condition you have. You haven’t even told your loved ones about your condition yet but Facebook already knows and is selling you medicines. Isn’t this a very serious breach of your privacy and personal space? Just imagine the details that can be learnt about a person by looking at the ads he or she sees.
When we are using these sites and apps, we are not the consumers. WE ARE THE PRODUCTS. How you ask?
Let’s say you are working late. You order a mid-night snack to fill in your empty stomach, Google records your food preferences and in the future, shows you ads of food products you love and ordered. You are reading tidbits about your latest Netflix love. The next thing you know Google is forcing you to buy Mindhunter merchandise. You use navigation to reach a friend’s place often, Google infers he is your friend and his likes will probably be your likes too. So it shows you products your friend bought. You whatsapped a loved one that you need to buy a watch. Lo and behold, all the ads you see are of watches. You really like the soundtrack of a new movie and have it on repeat, suddenly you start seeing the show timings of that movie. Also, this nightmare doesn’t end with shutting down your laptop. When you go to Pizza Hut and they ask for your name and number, they store it in their database and sell it again to these companies. Google then shows you more and more Pizza Hut ads. The more you purchase from a company in real life, the more ads about them you see online.
We are being surveilled by these apps and websites 24x7. With each new information about you being recorded, the database these companies have of your habits, preferences, likes and dislikes (Let’s call this database as your online profile) grows deeper and deeper. This online profile of you is what Facebook sees before deciding which ads would work best on you. Very efficient computer algorithms look your profile and handpick the most suitable ads for you. Imagine someone at Facebook by looking at your profile could know you better than most people. How long before these companies know you better than your friends? How long before these companies know you better than yourself? Well, not long as they most likely already do.
“Wait, is all this even legal?” You may ask. Sadly, the answer is yes. When using these services, no one reads the terms and conditions which clearly state that these companies will record user data for ‘enriching user experience’. When you install an app and it asks for permissions, you blindly give them to it. You don’t realize what there permissions allow them to do. These permissions may allow them record calls, access images, access messages etc. and send them to their company. We are the products being sold,bought and resold to large corporations. These corporations pick which users will see their ads depending on who is most likely to get influenced or buy their products. Think like this. Facebook , Google and others offer us as products to companies who choose users and target them with ads.
So what can you do? Well, for now there is not much you can do. It is difficult to completely get rid of this system, since after all it was us who chose this system. Yes, you heard it right. This is our fault. It was because of freeloaders like us who didn’t want to and still don’t pay for services online because who doesn’t enjoy free services? But the lack of enthusiasm for paid services, forced these companies to provide their services for cheap/free. They had to make their money from somewhere, so they turned towards the advertisement industry and made us their products.
So moving on, below are two solutions that can help you protect your privacy and stop you from being a product.
1) The first and foremost requirement is to stay aware. Be smart. Refrain from exposing your personal details, Examine permissions before installing an app or read the terms and conditions before using a service, Identify targeted ads when you are being showed one.
2) Use a VPN and ad blocking proxy.
You can think of VPN as a friend who browses the net on your behalf and gives you the result. In that way, only his identity is revealed and your identity stays anonymous.Blocking ads through a proxy is also useful.
Recommendations - VPNbook+OpenVPN (VPN) and Privoxy (Web Proxy).
Stay aware! Stay anonymous! Stay Safe!