The global spotlight is on Facebook now after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But I don’t think anyone has any idea how many companies are using data in this way, or the types of companies that are doing it. It’s hardly just “digital” companies doing this kind of thing.
Decide carefully if you want to read on, because once you do you will be unable to unread it and it may cause a lot of stress and change your behavior.
A few years ago I encountered a startup in Syracuse that specialized in facial recognition, technology that came from the military and security industries (I believe one of the founders came from the military.) They were deploying cameras at one of our local malls which were situated right inside the double-doors that are common in many malls. You open a door, close it, then about 4 feet later open another door.
This startup was able to use the natural pause between doors to get a good image of your face — something that is increasingly common everywhere, maybe even at your own workplace.
It turns out the mall, like many retail establishments, had already deployed beacon technology that could track when and where individually identified cell phones were requesting wifi. You may have never thought about this, but when you have your phone’s wifi turned on it is constantly sniffing the air basically asking, hey, is there any wifi here? No? OK. Then a few seconds later it asks again, hey guys, any wifi here? Eventually it gets a response and it happily displays that in your list of available wifi signals so that you can connect to wifi.
Here’s how beacons work. Every time your phone asks for wifi it blurts out a unique ID called a MAC address. Wifi has always worked this way, but the difference is that many retail establishments now log it. They don’t know who you are as a human being, but they know the unique identifier of your phone and they are able to tell which stores that phone typically visits, how long it stays, how often it lingers in front of a specific aisle in a store, how often it takes a trip to the bathrooms and how long it stays there, and so forth.
And hey, isn’t it convenient that the mall now has its own free wifi? If you connect to that, it makes it even easier for the routers to tell where you are in the mall. Thank you for that!
That may feel like an invasion of privacy to you, but at least it’s not tied to your name, right? It’s just some anonymous number. But here’s where it starts to get creepy.
I learned that the mall also had cameras situated at the entry roads to the mall that were focused on license plates. The same company that was logging faces was logging license plates, and the founder told me that they had an algorithm that could predict with great efficiency the likelihood that the a) license plate, b) face, and c) MAC address were all tied to the same person.
Read everything I just wrote very carefully and think about what this means for your privacy.
Now that you have stopped reading to take a walk and possibly breathed in and out of a paper bag a few times and you have come back to this part of my post, let’s take the next step.
That mall (likely one of hundreds, and maybe all of them) now has a very intimate profile of you and your shopping habits. But more than that, it knows about your preferences, and not just about stores. It knows if you frequently go to Nordstrom, but also if you frequently go to the intimate apparel section of Nordstrom. It knows how long you linger at that aisle, and of course Nordstrom also knows if you buy that apparel.
And guess what? Now this mall that you just happen to go to because you like to buy stuff also can correlate all of that data …. with your face! Or with your license plate. And any other data that can be correlated with your face of license plate (thank you social media and public records) can also be linked to you.
What this means is that all of the data necessary for a company to accost you with personalized ads as you approach a billboard is available right now. And those ads may be not only for things you bought online, but that you bought in a store. Or maybe in the future as you are driving, whatever Podcast or Spotify stream you are listening to (or even Alexa) starts suggesting new sexy underwear. Or if you spent too long in that mall bathroom, you may start getting ads for Depends undergarments.
But where it really starts to concern me is that companies like Facebook, Google and many others know what we say, how we say it and to whom we often say it. When that gets associated with real-world behavior, we really are living in a Black Mirror episode. The manner in which this kind of content can be used is completely out of our control.
Everyone is in a tizzy about what Facebook has on them — and don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot — but this tracking trend goes far beyond them, and also far beyond web sites and phones. It’s already happening in the real world.
Here’s the point of my long diatribe. Currently there are no laws in place that I know of that prevent Facebook, a mall, Nordstrom, Cambridge Analytica, the Trump Campaign, any future campaign, or even your mom from acquiring and correlating all of this highly personal data. And there should be.
Keep in mind too that we’re only talking about the stuff that can be purchased on the open market. If you think further into data from past or future hacks of social security numbers, text messaging or email, all of the places you have ever visited that Google Maps tracks (surprise!) or any other number of yummy personal databases that have been built around your desire for digital convenience, you will see that none of us truly have any privacy.
If you want privacy from this point onward (forget the past, that’s gone), you need to completely disassociate with all things digital, wear a face mask in public and illegally cover up your license plate. No technology policy is going to change any of this. The only thing that can even attempt to begin to give us back some control is the law — which also would need to be enforced. And it’s questionable if any such enforcement is possible.
Can’t sleep? Hey, I told you that you may not want to keep reading!