The intensifying Silicon Valley data collection arms race

By End the Lie

A member of the Google staff having his iris scanned before entering Google's facilities (Photo source: Google)

As I have repeatedly pointed out in articles and in radio appearances, Google’s business model relies on collecting boatloads of highly sensitive user information, along with Facebook and others.

To some, this is harmless and is only used to monetize their services by selling highly targeted advertising.

To others, this is a disturbing invasion of privacy and the massive amounts of personal information collected by these services, which is often handed over to governments, is a matter of concern.

Of course the former is highlighted over the latter in coverage by the establishment media. They highlight the ability to “personalize” services with all of the information collected and the highly targeted advertising made possible by the collection of all of this information.

They also make a point of calling this type of behavior “innovative” instead of characterizing it as the insidious erosion of our basic right to privacy which it really is.

One of the most recent controversies arose when it was discovered that Google was actually tweaking their advertisements on the Safari web browser, an Apple product, in order to circumvent the blocking of tracking cookies built in to Safari.

As I have previously explained, these tracking cookies are how they collect a vast majority of the personal information they gather, and they can be relatively easily blocked when you know what you’re doing.

That is precisely why I created these two guides on how to begin to keep your privacy intact on the internet and block Google’s tracking methods in ways so basic that just about anyone and their grandmother can do them.

Safari has a feature much like one of the methods I outline in my guide, which is blocking tracking cookies unless they are specifically allowed by the user.

Obviously Google didn’t like this because it was preventing them from gathering all of that lucrative personal information about you, your computer, your browsing habits, and so forth.

Representatives Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, both co-chairmen of the Congressional Privacy Caucus called for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to launch a probe into Google.

The FTC declined to comment to Reuters, which is hardly surprising.

Before this latest breach, Google introduced their new privacy policy, which I wrote about in an effort to emphasize the Big Brother-like aspects of their new policy, which just happens to be impossible to opt-out of.

The highlight of their new policy is that it allows user data to be aggregated across the many Google products, thus allowing for a more complete dossier on users including their emails, phone log (if they are an Android user), hardware details, search habits, browsing habits, etc.

Many people are not aware of this, but you do not have to be using, say, Google’s search engine, to have them collect information about your internet browsing.

Indeed, any website that uses Google Analytics or their lucrative advertising program is essentially acting as a remote data collection node for Google.

That’s right; any website that uses these services collects all of the deeply personal information Google looks for which is then owned by Google.

Thus, without taking steps to block all of their tracking methods, your internet activity is tracked across the vast majority of the internet, as you will be surprised to see most websites use one Google product or another.

Once you start running a script-blocker like NoScript you’ll quickly see how many websites – even, quite unfortunately, in the alternative media – act as data collectors for Google. I would be surprised if you do not find this somewhat unsettling if you were not familiar with it before.

Of course they incentivize this by offering massive amounts of advertising revenue for those websites who choose to run their ads.

Those who might criticize their practices – like me – often find themselves mysteriously banned from using their services with the justification being the clause which allows them to close any account permanently for any reason they see fit.

That’s not to say that it couldn’t be purely coincidental that I have pages with extensive documentation of Google’s connections to the intelligence community or articles which show how they have taken down YouTube videos in the United States for “government criticism” and foolproof guides showing users how to kill their tracking efforts. Indeed that could be nothing more than coincidence, but from their point of view I see no reason why they would not cut me off from their massive income stream.

After all, cutting off an individual’s ability to gain income from their website is a great way to make them unable to continue to keep the website online and packed with content. Thankfully, there are individuals and companies who still value free speech and thus support my efforts and those like mine.

Reuters actually does a great job of showing just how these activities are allowed to continue even in the face of massive public opposition.

“A company over-reaches, gets caught, and promises to do better. If a greater than usual display of outrage prompts introduction of plausible legislation, the industry counters with a new plan for self-regulation, such as the publication of privacy policies that users seldom read,” they write, adding, “Sooner or later, the plan is rendered obsolete by new technologies in the data arms race, and the cycle repeats.”

Most of the agreements between government and these companies are quite laughable, to be honest.

For instance, last year Google and Facebook both agreed to 20 years of privacy audits carried out by the FTC. This was after they had made public information which users considered to be private.

However, since there are very few restrictions on the information that these companies can collect, the audits are purely ceremonial and superficial.

The internet companies and their investors who are on the tip of the spear in this data collection war claim that they would not be able to provide the services they do without the collection of massive amounts of private user data.

They claim that the personal information collected allows them to provide more accurate search results, advertising and most absurd of all “more intimate connections with friends and others when Internet companies know something about them,” according to Reuters.

However, these “more accurate search results” also create an effect known as the filter bubble which locks people into information sources, topics and perspectives they are already exposed to. Thus, it acts to keep people stuck in an intellectual rut by keeping them away from new information that might challenge what they previously thought to be true.

For instance, if I search “September 11, 2001” I am going to come up with wildly different results than if, say, my grandmother searched the same phrase.

Some of the arguments put forth by proponents make absolutely no sense whatsoever. In attempting to defend the collection of highly private user data, Auren Hoffman, the CEO of a company which compiles profiles of internet users called Rapleaf, told Reuters, “I don’t like people tracking my location, but I want to know, ‘what are some nearby Italian restaurants that my friends have liked.’”

Obviously that is a contradictory statement. If you don’t like people tracking your location then you won’t use any of the many location-based services out there. If you really don’t want people tracking you, you might simply call a friend or something instead of utilizing a service which stores and tracks your location.

It is not as if they are presenting you with something with which you could not otherwise survive, thus these hypothetical situations are nothing short of laughable.

Rainey Reitman, the activism director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, says that major changes are not going to happen any time soon in the United States.

“Trying to pass a bill through Congress that’s actually going to safeguard user records, especially when you’ve got huge advertiser lobbies trying to defang that law, is an incredible challenge,” Reitman said.

Indeed, it has become quite obvious that these advertiser lobbies and their allied internet companies wield much more influence over what goes on in Washington than the common internet user does, largely due to the fact that we do not have millions of dollars with which to lobby.

Reitman says that at best they are hoping for a law which would give users the ability to opt-out of some of the tracking methods.

While Google used to allow users to opt-out of their tracking, with their new privacy policy they have made that a thing of the past.

Speaking of the possibility of an opt-out law, Justin Brookman, the director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said, “That is more likely today that it was 24 hours ago.”

However, he added, “But the ‘right-to-be forgotten,’ erase-button thing, you would see more of a fight.”

Indeed it appears that the last thing any of these companies want is the ability for users to reclaim their personal data and demand that all that highly valuable information be returned to them.

In the eyes of these companies, once they collect your information they own it and thus can do anything and everything they want with said information.

Obviously the federal government has no practical interest in stopping this activity because it allows for enormous collections of highly private information about American citizens to be collected over vast periods of time, giving more insight into that individual’s private life than any amount of traditional surveillance ever could.

When companies like Google fulfill 95% of the user data requests filed by the American government, it becomes quite obvious why they would have no interest in preventing this collection; indeed it is quite apparent why they would support such efforts.

Furthermore, there is the matter of the clandestine relationship between companies like Google and Facebook and the intelligence community, which makes it so we actually know very little when it comes to the inner workings of these corporations and how they interface with our government.

This issue is a huge matter of concern for me and many others around the world, and thankfully in the United States we have some groups who are fighting for our rights including the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

I encourage anyone who cares about their privacy to take a minute to read this guide which outlines some very easy ways to block Google tracking and if you can, support EPIC and the EFF however you can.

Only through a popular push can this practice be challenged, as it has become painfully clear – at least here in the United States – that our government and our so-called representatives have no interest in preserving our privacy and instead seek only to keep their corporate cronies happy.

If we rely on legislators to start fighting back I think we’ll be waiting for quite a while. So until then, you can block Google’s tracking scripts, use tools like Google, Facebook and Twitter as information sharing tools and thus exploit their own platforms for our ends.

Keep in mind that Google and Facebook already own all of the information they have collected on you and you cannot actually ever close your Facebook account, nor can you force any of these companies to purge all of the information they have gathered on you.

Thus, if you have ever opened an account I encourage you to use it for good by leveraging the platform to spread information like this far and wide while we still have the ability to.

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2 Responses to The intensifying Silicon Valley data collection arms race

  1. Anonymous February 20, 2012 at 12:44 AM

    Google is watching….

    Reply
  2. Anonymous February 20, 2012 at 12:44 AM

    by the way watch this site drop in the rankings after posting this.

    Reply

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