If government is spying is bad, what about corporate data-gathering?
The Snowden revelations have also made people aware of how much of their communications and transactions happen over digital networks, the ones that government spies are so broadly monitoring. They're also being shown how much of that information comes from the tech and telecom companies whose services they use -- and often with their complicity, even if court-ordered.
A prevalent business model in Silicon Valley is to gather as much information on customers as possible to analyze it to target ads and other promotions, so they are more likely to be effective and thus profitable. Marketers across the spectrum of comsumer-oriented companies -- not just tech -- are spending billions of dollars gathering and analyzing such customer data from websites, social media, and various private and public databases (such as those your bank seeks your permission every year by law to sell to "partners").
Cookies and other means are used to trace your passage through the Web to create profiles of what interests you and what your needs may be. If you go to Amazon.com and search for something, you will very likely see an ad for it at the Reuters website, for example. If you take a home loan, you'll see ads on the Web and in your email, for home improvement products -- not just spam in your physical mailbox.
Most of us have learned how to ignore such direct marketing and often don't step back to think about how "they" know. But "they" want to go further. Cisco Systems, for example, has partnered with Facebook to encourage people to "like" a hotel or other venue by offering an hour or two of free Wi-Fi access -- the "like" is used as permission to send your personal information from Facebook to the venue for marketing purposes. Several companies sell systems for shopping malls that track phones' unique signatures to identify patterns of behavior in stores, then sell that data to the stores to help them be more effective. They also offer apps that connect the anonymous IDs to actual people, for highly targeted pitches.
Google is a master of this kind of spying, using your searches and activities on its broad set of Web services to figure out what you may want or need. That seems benign, as it may lead you more quickly to something you want or need. But it's unclear when search results are based on your query versus what Google wants you to see on behalf of a client. These aren't new concerns, but people may have gained a fresh appreciation for them given the Snowden revelations about our digital footprints. The European governments have been increasingly concerned, and now Canada's government has started to investigate the antitrust implications of the provider-sponsor relationships formed around your information.
All of this raises several questions:
- What information is collected about you, who gets to see it, and what can they do with it?
- How do you know if the answers to your queries are actually the best answers for you or the best answers for Google's clients? They may not be the same.
- Why can't you choose who gets to benefit from the infornation you share -- or gets a cut of the value you're essentially giving away?
- How do you correct mistaken or otherwise off-target information? Even for something that's regulated and established like credit histories, it's a very difficult process; for most data collected on you, it's simply impossible.
As individuals and businesses digest the implications of a digital context in which we all operate, the issues of privacy, content and recommendation independence, appropriate intelligence gathering by governments, and the ownership and management issues around people's digital footprints and, ultimately, online personas will be too hard to ignore or treat in such a cavalier manner.
The way it's going, we're on our way to a digital police state that would make East Germany's Stasi proud and turn us into global corporate giants' vassal-consumers, no matter what the Silicon Valley and security apologists would have you believe.
Thanks to Snowden's revelations, we know all know there are very few secrets, that we are monitored and evaluated constantly. That knowledge will change the behavior of individuals, businesses, and governments in ways we don't yet know. We can now make the decisions explicitly, and perhaps even help create an enlightened world where all that information is used to empower both society and individuals, not control or steer them away from their best interests.
People may ultimately choose not to care about these issues, and allow the spying to go on behind the scenes as long as there's no obvious price to pay. If so, even that at least would be a choice made openly, not a fate that happened to befall us in ignorance.
This article, "Edward Snowden has stripped us of all illusion about our digital world," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.