From general wiretapping to data retention to face recognition to mass tracking of individuals, the same pattern is evident: people demanding their right to privacy are treated as criminals who are obstructing justice just for the sake of it.
Never in history have authorities been so carelessly curious about the people they are supposed to work for, and taken so much information from them by force. The doctrine is evident: “Your private data may be useful to us, therefore, we shall take it by force; who cares if you are inconvenienced by us digging through your online habits in depth”.
Imagine that the authorities have access to your daily movements, everything you’ve said and everybody you’ve talked to for the past couple of years. (They do, or are seeking to have that access.) How would a hypothetical future… administration… be able to use this against you? Could they conceivably see any patterns?
You know, it doesn’t matter if you haven’t broken a single law. What matters is how your data is interpreted.
“Any data collected must be assumed to leak and be used against the citizen in the worst conceivable way. If this worst conceivable way is not acceptable in a democratic society, then the data may not be collected in the first place.”
What privacy advocates don't get about data tracking
on the web.
Rather than caring about what they know about me, we should care about what they know about us. Detailed knowledge of individuals and their behavior coupled with the aggregate data on human behavior now available at unprecedented scale grants incredible power. Knowing about all of us - how we behave, how our behavior has changed over time, under what conditions our behavior is subject to change, and what factors are likely to impact our decision-making under various conditions - provides a roadmap for designing persuasive technologies. For the most part, the ethical implications of widespread deployment of persuasive technologies remains unexamined.
Using all of the trace data we leave in our digital wakes to target ads is known as "behavioral advertising." This is what Target was doing to identify pregnant women, and what Amazon does with every user and every purchase. But behavioral advertisers do more than just use your past behavior to guess what you want. Their goal is actually to alter user behavior. Companies use extensive knowledge gleaned from innumerable micro-experiments and massive user behavior data over time to design their systems to elicit the monetizable behavior that their business models demand. At levels as granular as Google testing click-through rates on 41 different shades of blue, data-driven companies have learned how to channel your attention, initiate behavior, and keep you coming back.
The goals of the companies collecting the data are not necessarily the same as the goals of the people they are tracking. Another is that, as we establish norms for dealing with personal and behavioral data we should approach the issue with a full understanding of the scope of what's at stake. To understand the stakes, our critiques of ad tracking (and the fundamental asymmetries it creates) need to focus more on power and less on privacy.