The Internet as a surveillance way of life

Bruce Schneier, whom we’ve met several times in these pages, warns that the “Internet of Things” is becoming an ever-greater threat to our privacy.

Surveillance is the business model of the internet, and the more these companies know about the intimate details of your life, the more they can profit from it. Already there are dozens of companies that secretly spy on you as you browse the internet, connecting your behavior on different sites and using that information to target advertisements. You know it when you search for something like a Hawaiian vacation, and ads for similar vacations follow you around the internet for weeks. Companies like Google and Facebook make an enormous profit connecting the things you write about and are interested in with companies trying to sell you things.

Cross-device tracking is the latest obsession for internet marketers. You probably use multiple internet devices: your computer, your smartphone, your tablet, maybe your internet-enabled television—and, increasingly, “Internet of Things” devices like smart thermostats and appliances. All of these devices are spying on you, but the different spies are largely unaware of each other … This is where the Internet of Things makes the problem worse. As computers get embedded into more of the objects we live with and use, and permeate more aspects of our lives, more companies want to use them to spy on us without out knowledge or consent.

. . .

We need to have a conversation about the privacy implications of cross-device tracking, but—more importantly—we need to think about the ethics of our surveillance economy. Do we want companies knowing the intimate details of our lives, and being able to store that data forever? Do we truly believe that we have no rights to see the data that’s collected about us, to correct data that’s wrong, or to have data deleted that’s personal or embarrassing? At a minimum, we need limits on the behavioral data that can legally be collected about us and how long it can be stored, a right to download data collected about us, and a ban on third-party ad tracking. The last one is vital: it’s the companies that spy on us from website to website, or from device to device, that are doing the most damage to our privacy.

There’s more at the link.

I’ve harped on the subject of privacy more than once in these pages, but I fear it’s a losing battle.  Once that genie is out of the bottle, it’s very hard to stuff it back in again;  and even if legislation or regulation draws a line, what about the encroachments that have already taken place?  Even if companies are prevented from invading our privacy even more, what about the data they’ve already gathered?  They’re most unlikely to discard it.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find that if one country or region passes a law that requires them to do so, they’ll simply copy the data to storage in another country or region before the deadline, then use a subsidiary there to access it whenever they wish.  That’s not illegal, after all – although I believe it should be.

This is a mess.  I have no idea what the solution is, except for a radical pruning of everything that’s gone on so far and a ‘clean slate’ approach – which is precisely what companies and politicians are not going to permit.  All I can do is load ad blocker software onto every device that will allow it;  set my browser to reject cookies and beacons;  and use browser add-ons such as NoScript and Ghostery to block trackers and other intrusive code.  I recommend the same steps to all my readers.


1 comment

  1. For Android phones, tablets, et al, install and use Ghost Browser. Only. For IE users, download and install the Ghost Add-In. Firefox and other Google derivatives, do the same.

    Once installed, set Blocking to "All".

    You will be amazed at how fast your connection becomes, how quickly pages appear, and how peaceful things are without all the useless ad-driven tripe getting in your way.

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