The Commodification of You
How ISPs, apps, third parties, and websites are raking in the big bucks by tracking your clicks, emails, and purchases — and what we can do to control our digital identities.
It’s ubiquitous and overwhelming. In our current system of the Internet, we’re asked to forfeit any modicum of privacy in a leveraged exchange, simply to access news, entertainment, and social interaction.
While in the U.S. data mining is largely framed as a privacy issue, in Europe, the GDPR considers data collection a security issue. Realistically, they’re one and the same. You shouldn’t have to relinquish your right to privacy and security simply to access the online world.
Take PayPal for example. In order to utilize their services for something as simple as sending $50 to a friend, you have to consent — whether you know it or not — to allow PayPal to share your personal data with over 600 companies. 600.
From there, who knows what happens to your data? How do these companies use it? Do they sell it to even more third parties? And most importantly, how rigorous is the security of each of these companies? Because ultimately, while corporations in the U.S. see data harvesting in economic terms, for the end user, it’s a security issue.
We’ve seen corporation after corporation — either willingly or mistakenly — spill our data and put us at risk over the last five years. So even if the companies harvesting and selling your data aren’t intentionally sharing it with adversarial governments or hackers, what’s the likelihood that 600-plus companies have the security sophistication to ensure that it doesn’t end up in malicious hands?
But, as Bitcoin engineer Jameson Lopp points out, having your personal data available online doesn’t take a massive corporate blunder in order to expose you.
Speaking to Forbes, Lopp explained “You don’t know who you might piss off, especially if you’re active on social media. It’s just not possible to fully comprehend the thought processes of everybody else out there who’s on the Internet who might read or hear something you might say and then what they might do as a result.”
He’s speaking from experience. He was the victim of an unsuccessful swatting attempt where the attacker tried to extort him. And while he may have had a higher public profile than most, it should stop and give us pause.
What happens if you share a political opinion, or criticize an authoritarian government, or, as Lopp says, simply piss someone off in a Facebook post or tweet? Because of the trove of information about you that corporations harvest and sell, simply sharing your opinion publicly now puts you at risk of having your data turned against you.
I can only think of two groups that could possibly be happy about a system like this: corporations and criminals. For the rest of us, we’re left in the wind, told that this type of exploitation and insecurity is the price of admission. Buy your ticket, sign our terms and conditions, and deal with it.
While individual states are moving forward with legislation to protect our online data, in 2017, corporate interests successfully lobbied a bill into law that allows them to harvest massive amounts of your personal and financial information without your consent.
Americans are becoming increasingly aware and distrustful of this system. But few feel like they can do anything about it. Even for the aware and outraged, convenience often trumps any attempt at online independence. Because nearly every website and app that we rely on harvests our data for their financial gain, attempting to regain control can seem overwhelming.
So, aside from supporting legislation and systemic change, what can you do? First, you can find an app that blocks ad trackers. But because in the background of your device a whole host of applications enable location trackers, page hijackers, data trackers, and more, something more robust is ideal than an in-browser ad blocker. A more complete way to thwart the various entities attempting to harvest your data is with a firewall that blocks all communications to known ad networks, trackers, and other third parties interested in your personal information at the packet level.
That solves one part of the privacy equation. But in order to further protect yourself, this firewall should be paired with a VPN to connect to the Internet, which will encrypt your data and disable the ability of third parties to harvest your personal information based on your IP address. It’s simple, and you don’t need to be technologically sophisticated to do so.
The key is selecting the right VPN. Many free VPNs actually harvest and sell your data in the same manner as an ISP as their business model. They aren’t going to include it in their marketing messages, but in the terms and conditions, you’ll find language asserting their right to do so in exchange for their services.
Because this practice is so commonplace, Apple moved last month to ban VPNs that harvest your data from its App Store. Still, many of the VPNs available in the App Store will be forced to register to authoritarian governments that will monitor and harvest data in order to operate in countries where online censorship is comprehensive. Like VPN services that sell your data, this essentially undermines why we use VPNs.
Thankfully, the rise in blockchain technology is starting to provide us with answers. In decentralized technologies, we can create solutions to both data harvesting and censorship. Decentralized apps and VPNs give users the ability to securely access an online experience while cutting out corporate or government middlemen that want to own your online interactions. Because they’re open source, the users are both aware of and in control of how the technology is used.
While the technology behind the decentralized movement may be difficult to understand for the average Internet user, the intentions are not. Decentralized technologies aim to shift the power balance into the hands of the user, eliminating the ability of third parties to compromise our online experiences. As the current state of the Internet becomes more fractured and exploitative, technologists are working to give us what we want and deserve: an open, unrestricted Internet we can all enjoy and benefit from.