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May 13, 2019

No Privacy Equals Totalitarianism

Tech giants are doing a number on Americans’ privacy, and most aren’t even aware of it.

Privacy is dead — and Big Tech killed it.

“Google knows a lot about you and, if you use Google Maps or other Google apps, it stores a copy of everywhere you go,” explains Todd Haselton, CNBC’s technology products editor. Haselton picked a random date in the midst of performing Google’s “Privacy Checkup,” and what he discovered shocked him. “It knew everywhere I went, including that I took Interstate 95 to our office in northern New Jersey and that I arrived at 7:58 a.m.,” he explains. “It knew that at 1:02 p.m. I drove to Jersey City and took a train in to Manhattan to the New York Stock Exchange before returning home at 4:38 p.m. And it has a copy of the pictures I took at each location.”

To what end? Google claims the maps will help one discover more efficient commuter routes and reacquaint one with locations along the way. Yet as the Associated Press revealed last year, such help wasn’t optional. It discovered Google services wants your data bad enough “to store your location data even if you’ve used a privacy setting that says it will prevent Google from doing so.”

The AP’s discovery was confirmed by computer-science researchers at Princeton. Moreover, while Google assured users they can turn off “Location History” anytime they want, the AP discovered that some Google apps still store time-stamped location data automatically.

As both Haselton and the AP note, Google offers a number of ways to either remove or control such data, but it requires a number of user-initiated steps to do so. Moreover, much of it is misleading. For example on an iPhone, one can turn off “Location History” and Google will still get location data from apps that will store it under the heading of “My Activity.”

Last Tuesday, Google announced it will give users more privacy tools and greater control over how they’re being tracked both outside and inside their homes. CEO Sundar Pichai insisted the company was making an effort to stay ahead of “constantly evolving user expectations” on privacy.

Jeremy Tillman, president of Ghostery, wasn’t buying it. “They’re sort of marginal improvements,” he stated. “They are not bad, but they almost seem like they’re designed to give the company a better messaging push instead of making wholesale improvements to user privacy.”

Princeton computer scientist Jonathan Mayer, was equally unimpressed with Google’s promise to give Chrome users better control over tracking cookies used by digital advertisers to target customers. “This is not privacy leadership,” he asserted. “This is privacy theater.”

If Google were genuinely interested in privacy leadership they’d answer a simple question: Why is Google’s default position that the user must opt out, rather than in to tracking schemes that would make George Orwell blush?

As always, the answer is money. “The company makes billions of dollars annually by selling digital ads that are targeted at the interests people reveal through their search requests and data collected by Google apps and services,” the AP explains.

Google is hardly alone. Amazon’s Alexa a home-based, name-activated device that listens to what one is saying — and then sends a copy to Amazon of everything it records. Like similar devices, including Apple’s Siri, these recordings are ostensibly used to train the artificial intelligence tech companies use to make them more “efficient.” Or as both Amazon and Facebook assert, to improve products, not to sell them.

Reality is a bit more chilling. “Alexa keeps a record of what it hears every time an Echo speaker activates,” explains columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler. “It’s supposed to only record with a ‘wake word’ — ‘Alexa!’ — but anyone with one of these devices knows they go rogue. I counted dozens of times when mine recorded without a legitimate prompt.”

A couple of states have stepped up to prevent what amounts to eavesdropping. Illinois passed the Keep Internet Devices Safe Act, which prohibits such recording without specific consent from users, and the California State Assembly’s privacy committee has advanced an Anti-Eavesdropping Act addressing the same concerns.

Yet tech giants keep pushing the envelope. Google’s Nest thermostat reports one’s house temperature to Google in 15-minute increments, and also tracks the movement of people in the house. “Smart lights” track when they’re turned on and off, smart garage door openers track up and down movement, and smart speakers track one’s music choices, with all of the data sent back to the companies that make the devices — most of whom share it with Amazon.

Unfortunately, hackers have access to such data as well. A woman who thought her three-year-old daughter was having nightmares discovered that the Nest Cam installed above her bed was transmitting pornography via the intercom feature in the software.

Such possibilities are enabled by Big Tech’s insidious priorities. The Washington Post reports, “Software designed to help people break into websites and devices has gotten so easy to use that it’s practically child’s play, and many companies, including Nest, have effectively chosen to let some hackers slip through the cracks rather than impose an array of inconvenient countermeasures that could will detract from their users’ experience and ultimately alienate their customers.”

Almost unbelievably, this virtually unlimited surveillance has its supporters. RealClearMarkets editor and Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks John Tamny brings up the inefficiencies of Communist Cuba, where “aren’t any Amazon-style companies going out of their way to meet the needs of their customers,” to tout the benefits of a device that he wished listened to him “with greater frequency.” “Figure that the more Alexa listens to my wife and me, along with our daughter, the better Amazon can get to know us,” he declares.

And while he makes the legitimate point that no one held a gun to anyone’s head and made them put Amazon’s Echo in their house, he derides Fowler’s aforementioned take because if “one’s buying something in the market economy, your purchases are being tracked. This is a good thing.”

Utter nonsense. As Ben Franklin stated, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” That goes double for those who would sacrifice liberty, safety, and privacy for efficiency and convenience.

As mentioned above, government — assuming it hasn’t totally surrendered running the country to the tech giants — should at the very least impose opt-in on these intrusive behemoths.

Moreover, if they can’t squeeze the surveillance toothpaste back in the tube, then it’s time to hit these companies where it hurts: Congress should allow people to copyright their personal data, and require tech companies to provide detailed logs of who’s getting what for the purposes of exploitation. Every company using one’s personal data to make a profit should be required to pay a percentage of that profit back to each individual they track.

It’s not a cure, but it might force companies to do some serious re-prioritization. Far more important? Break up these giants — giants with historically unprecedented power — and limit the amount and nature of data they can share with each other.

“Efficient” totalitarianism is a lousy alternative.

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