How Big Tech Justifies Spying On You

Malachi Diaz
May 1 · 4 min read
Image by Malachi Diaz

Tech companies that request data, like location, on our mobile phones are considered the norm nowadays. Until relatively recently, what was being done with it was not well understood, but we are starting to get a clearer picture of how our data is being used and who has access to it. If we truly knew how easy it is to be identified in an anonymous data set, we would, first, take away our children’s phones. Then we’d stop using our own. So you might wonder how these companies are even still in business. They’re not only in business, they’re big business. Location-targeted advertising sales were approximately $21 billion in 2019. Their revenue grows each year as a new generation of people starts using a mobile phone. Most Americans have a cell phone but few are aware of where our data is going after download and accept our favorite apps privacy policy. This is just one of the three ways companies claim as justification to take your data:

1. They have our consent.

2. The data is anonymous.

3. The data is secure.

They will argue that these are all valid, but there are fundamental issues with each of these claims.

1. We don’t know what we’re consenting to. Privacy policies are difficult to read. By one estimate, it would take 76 workdays to read the privacy policies that we encounter in one year. App makers are putting every egg they have in the basket that says you won’t take the time to read the policy. On the off chance that you do, it has been written with such legal and technical lingo that you probably wouldn’t understand all that it entails even if you read each sentence thrice and got a second opinion. Yet, the apps are only available if a user agrees to the policy leaving us no choice but to accept if we want to use it. They offer us the option of opting out, but with the lack of competition, that’s not really an option. There are not many Facebooks, for instance.

Companies will argue that we can just choose not to accept their policy and you’re free to use alternative applications. Nobody should have to give up their privacy to use a product. Apple now requires applications to ask permission to track you. People will choose to not be tracked if they are confronted with a clear option, which is terrible for Facebook, and they know it. Apple’s new mandate gives you some control over your data and gives us something to counter long, incomprehensible privacy policies.

Pro Privacy Tip: Google and Facebook offer privacy check-ups. Go through these settings at least as often as you visit the dentist to stay in control of who sees what you share.

2. Our data may be “anonymous” but it doesn’t take much to link it to personal identifiers. There are countless ways that your “anonymous” data can be linked back to personal identifiers. Often, all that is needed is a home or work address and a phone number, but sometimes the information is as specific as your screen brightness.

Third-party cookies operate in nearly the same way. They can link various strands of anonymous data to unencrypted data sets which allow someone to make strong guesses as to whose online activity is whose.

Nobody knows this better than Google, who announced that it is doing away with third-party cookies. Do not fall for this privacy theatre. It is a show to get you to think that they care about your information. Google is not doing away with tracking, they’re bringing it in-house with a program called FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts). The program may be a small step forward for consumer privacy, but it changes little to turn away from their business model of surveillance-based behavioral advertising.

3. Data is not secure. In the time that I have started this project, a data breach compromised the information of over half of a billion Facebook accounts. This is a massive leak, but it is not the first and it won’t be the last. Facebook took little responsibility. A Facebook communication team member emailed a journalist for Belgian publication Data News saying they “expect more scraping incidents and think it’s important to both frame this as a broad industry issue and normalize the fact that this activity happens regularly.”

That is unacceptable. We cannot live in a society where we expect our information to be leaked to the public. It’s true, there have been many data leaks and not only from Facebook. Yet, Facebook’s lawyer argued that Facebook users had ‘no privacy interest’ because by the sheer act of using the platform they had ‘negated any reasonable expectation of privacy. Countless data leaks have proven that they do not respect our privacy and some believe that the social media giant is a dead platform walking, but Facebook is not the only entity to have a data breach.

It is up to us to prepare for the potential of another leak by taking the necessary precautions to defend ourselves. By using methods like mass obfuscation that take regaining privacy on the offensive by targeting these companies where it hurts: advertising dollars. There is no reason that other data irresponsible companies can’t learn to take measures and enact protocols to keep our data secure.

We are not completely off the hook either. We must stop using products from companies that don’t protect us and do things that are not convenient, like reading privacy policies or refrain from using a popular app. Most historical movements that enacted real change were never convenient. People lost money, relationships, jobs, even their life, to protest for what they believe in. The issue might not seem like a priority right now, but data is being collected as we speak. We aren’t standing up for only ourselves. We’re fighting for our children and our grandchildren’s future.

Protest With Privacy

A guide to reclaiming our right to privacy from Big Tech, the government, and data vultures.

Protest With Privacy

We are constantly analyzed. The data we create every day is used against us in nefarious ways. Join the universal privacy protest of surveillance capitalism.

Malachi Diaz

Written by

I enjoy writing about privacy tools and finding ways to take down the surveillance economy. Also learning to play the guitar.

Protest With Privacy

We are constantly analyzed. The data we create every day is used against us in nefarious ways. Join the universal privacy protest of surveillance capitalism.

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