Wednesday, July 13, 2016

We have a complete dossier on you…

"It’s just a game," a friend posted on Facebook recently.

A rather sophisticated augmented reality game where you use your mobile phone to capture “Pokemon” in a mix of real and virtual worlds. But still, just a game.

"That's it. No, there really isn't anything more to it than that."

But of course there is more to it than that. I mean, it is a game, but it’s a game that regular people like you and me can’t win.

The real point of such games (as well as the "My Vocabulary Size Is.. " and "My Celebrity Lookalike Is.. " and "If I were a Star Trek Character I Would Be..."  Facebook games that you see every week), is for big data companies to find a way to get people to voluntary sign up for software that allows them to collect tons of data about them personally.

They then sell this data to the highest bidder (usually companies associated with digital advertising) and productize you and other people who behave like you and sell you to advertisers.

A lot of people don't care that they are being packaged and sold, it's been going on to some degree almost since the beginning of advertising. The difference these days is that the data collected is waaaaaay more sophisticated than the advertiser suspecting your between 18-45 years old and you really like Jackie Gleason’s brand of misogynistic bombast.

These days, when you opt in to this kind of data collection, you’re telling them precisely where you are (down to the latitude and longitude coordinates) and when. You’re letting them in on which websites you're browsing, what products you're shopping for, what physical malady you happen to be suffering at the time.

The level of insight that can be drawn from this kind of data, the predictions that can be made about your preferences and behavior, would make Miss Cleo soak her pants.

You might have noticed that over there in the right-hand rail of your Facebook page there’s an ad for that pair of shoes, or shorts, or maybe that vacation getaway that you were Googling earlier today. That’s no coincidence. The advertisers have you pegged.

Again, some people don’t care about that. MOST people don't care about that. Indeed, some people say “Good. I get ads for stuff I’m interested in instead of some dumb punch-the-monkey spam for a high-rate mortgage.”

And that’s cool. That’s all just fine. Buuuuuut…

I just think we should all have our eyes open to OTHER ways the data could be used. I mean, some companies (like Niantic in the case of Pokemon Go) say they won’t sell your data to third parties. I mean they promise and pinkie swear and everything. But let’s face it, when the going gets tough and the investors are at the front door with pitchforks demanding their exit strategies and returns-on-investment, who do you think is going to get sold out?

That’s right it’s you, me and all of our precious behavioral data. And even more troubling, who do you think we’re going to be sold too?

The paranoid among us would say “the NSA… or even scarier, some nefarious foreign spy agency!” But the reality is government agencies don’t need to buy data about you since they already have a direct tap into ALL internet traffic and are already constantly spying on you (thanks for the heads-up, Edward Snowden!).

Anyway, if you think government agents snooping through your Google accounts and sharing your naked selfies with each other is the worst that can happen, then my friend you suffer from a lack of imagination.

Here are a couple of more likely (and probably already happening) scenarios:

First, it’s probably difficult to overstate the amount of lifestyle data that gets collected about you, especially if you use a FitBit or similar activity tracker. From your physical activity, to your food interests, to your drinking habits, to how much TV/internet video you watch… all of that is being collected and packaged and is super valuable to companies that aren’t advertising firms.

For one thing, insurance companies (auto, health) love to learn all they can about you. Do you think they won’t use your own data against you to jack up your premiums and copays? Of course they will. And since Obamacare now means we’re all criminals if we DON’T buy health insurance, well, they pretty much have us by the short curlies, don’t they?

But there are other more nefarious abuses that are (probably) already happening. Imagine what kind of web browsing/lifestyle data is available on pretty much every old whit guy making laws in Washington, DC. Do you really think it’s beyond a company like Koch Industries, or Goldman Sachs or even Google or Apple to use this kind of personal data as “leverage” on key legislative measures?

Do you really think it was out of the pure consideration for the public good that nobody from Goldman Sachs was prosecuted for ruining the global economy a couple of years ago? Do you really think all of the highly technologically literate old white dudes thought the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was good public policy?

No? Me neither (and your staring to get it, good job!) After all, our senators and congressmen are only poor corrupt public officials. They have kickbacks to pay and mistresses to feed.

So, what’s the upshot here? I guess it’s just to say that whenever an app or program or web widget asks for access to your Facebook page, or Google account or Twitter stream, you should tell it to fuck right the hell off.

Or make up a fake internet identity and spam the system.