Who’s Really Snooping
on What We Do Online?

July 24th, 2013
by Robert Armstrong

Last month we published an article, based on the research of a local “gringo ex-cop,” about one of the dark aspects of the ongoing information revolution – the exploitation of social media by pedophiles and other sexual predators. An addendum in this month’s Mailbox confirms that our earnest investigator is somewhat naïve to the ways of cyberspace. Nonetheless, he performed a valuable service by drawing attention to a cyber threat of particular relevance to the Bay Islands.

However, sexual predators are far from being the only Trojan Horses we have allowed into our homes through the internet or even necessarily the most menacing. A far more grievous threat, we think, is implied by this month’s Speaking Out – the  erosion of our privacy and civil liberties by an overreaching  security apparatus and a compliant communications industry.

George Crimmin focuses on the “revelations” of former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden (which should not be all that “revealing” to anyone who has paid attention the past 12 years) concerning US government monitoring of people’s online activity and the  implications for the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution. These are important issues, but they concern primarily people who reside in the US.

Of greater concern to those of us who live outside the US is the extent to which the gatekeepers of the new global information space – firms like Google and Facebook – are complicit in this snooping. More to the point, to a large extent what the NSA is doing is simply piggy-backing on or appropriating the data-mining these private companies have long been doing on us, for their own purposes, without our informed consent and without regard for national boundaries.

The Voice is not technophobic or anti-capitalist. We actively use social media, as most modern businesses do, and believe in the powerful potential of the internet to bring people together and put vast amounts of information instantaneously at our fingertips, as well as to create whole new areas of commerce. However, the information revolution stands to be as transformative of human culture as the agricultural and industrial revolutions that preceded it, and so far we’re not managing it very well.

On the upside, according to one estimate, by 2010 humans were creating and sharing more information on the internet every two days than the sum total of all information recorded by people from the dawn of recorded history until 2003. Of course, the vast majority of that information is pure rubbish. But the worrisome thing isn’t the quality of the information on the internet but who controls our access to it and how they use that control.

The inventors of the internet – mainly scientists on government contracts – conceived it as an open non-commercial space where people could freely exchange ideas without intermediaries. Through a series of conscious and unconscious decisions, mostly in the US, neglect of longstanding anti-trust laws, abuse and misapplication of intellectual property laws and other acts of omission and commission, we have allowed virtually every key node of the new information space to become the private domain of one or a very small number of huge firms. These firms use their positions as gatekeepers to collect as much information about us as they can and then sell it to others so they can target advertisements at us. As a recent New York Times article put it, “Personal data is the oil of the information age.”

“The internet is swarming with mostly anonymous and unaccountable companies tracking everything that moves,” writes Robert McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a recent book titled Digital Disconnect. They then make money by “surreptitiously violating any known understanding of privacy,” he says.

We’re not talking here about people who willingly and foolishly post detailed information about their personal lives for all to see on their Facebook profiles. Rather, the stock in trade of the new internet behemoths is what we reveal about ourselves by the websites we visit and with whom we communicate – the exact sort of metadata people are so alarmed about the NSA collecting. McChesney writes that more than half of the 84 categories of data Facebook collects about us is not visible even to us. Furthermore, he says, surveys reveal “spectacular ignorance” among internet users about “what is actually occurring to them and their data online,” and no matter how we configure our web browsers, he says, “there is no way to stop being tracked.”

The situation is even worse for smart phone users. A 2010 Wall Street Journal investigation found that more than half of iPhone and Android apps transmitted the phone’s unique device ID or location to other companies without the user’s knowledge. Some even sent age, gender and other personal details. As two  reporters for ProPublica put it, “Let’s stop calling them phones. They are trackers.”

The bulk of the loot from this data mining is accruing to a tiny handful of firms. Google alone gobbles up more than half of all internet advertising revenue. And advertising has become largely divorced from the content it appears with – many advertisers do not even know where their ads are run. One analyst estimated digital publishers in 2010 received only 20 cents of every dollar advertisers spent on their sites. It’s as if in the print age 80 percent of the income from book sales went not to the authors but to the paper manufacturers.

That leads us to another potential dark consequence of the new information economy. Ironically, the internet, as we’ve allowed it to develop, is actually closing the information space, herding us onto virtual reservations of like-minded cohorts, each with not only their own opinions but their own facts, and bringing on the death of professional journalism. Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of virtual reality technology, fears that in this environment the “content providers” – people we used to call artists, writers and intellectuals – are becoming digital serfs.

As a publication dedicated to professional journalism, the Voice hopes Lanier and other internet pessimists are wrong on that score. But we fear they may be right. Be happy in your work.

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