By The Editorial BoardThe editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.April 7, 20207Credit…Illustration by Michael Houtz; photograph by Getty ImagesMillions of Americans, sheltering in their homes from the coronavirus, have turned to communications platforms like Zoom, Google Hangouts and Facebook Messenger in order to work or stay connected to friends and family. Free and easy to use, the services are gobbling up record numbers of new users.But there’s a saying in Silicon Valley: If the product is free, you are the product.This is not business as usual, though. Americans aren’t willingly surrendering their online identities during this pandemic — many are being compelled to do so by their schools, family or work. Just as a swath of manufacturers are switching their production lines to ventilator and mask production for the greater good, corporations that normally view every new registered user as a data point to exploit need to take a pause on profiting from online data harvesting.For those fortunate enough to have laptops and reliable broadband internet at home, it is not sufficient to simply update privacy policies or customer agreements. Americans need a guarantee that conversations held over video chat won’t be data collection events.The videoconferencing company Zoom has been a standout brand of the pandemic, in part because its daily user numbers ballooned to 200 million in March from 10 million last year, making it one of the few buoyant stocks amid the recent sell-off.
EVERY MINUTE OF EVERY DAY, everywhere on the planet, dozens of companies — largely unregulated, little scrutinized — are logging the movements of tens of millions of people with mobile phones and storing the information in gigantic data files. The Times Privacy Project obtained one such file, by far the largest and most sensitive ever to be reviewed by journalists. It holds more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans as they moved through several major cities, including Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017. The data was provided to Times Opinion by sources who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to share it and could face severe penalties for doing so. The sources of the information said they had grown alarmed about how it might be abused and urgently wanted to inform the public and lawmakers.
After spending months sifting through the data, tracking the movements of people across the country and speaking with dozens of data companies, technologists, lawyers and academics who study this field, we feel the same sense of alarm. In the cities that the data file covers, it tracks people from nearly every neighborhood and block, whether they live in mobile homes in Alexandria, Va., or luxury towers in Manhattan.
One search turned up more than a dozen people visiting the Playboy Mansion, some overnight. Without much effort we spotted visitors to the estates of Johnny Depp, Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger, connecting the devices’ owners to the residences indefinitely.
“Google and Facebook collect information about us and then sell that data to advertisers. Websites deposit invisible “cookies” onto our computers and then record where we go online. Even our own government has been known to track us.
When it comes to digital privacy, it’s easy to feel hopeless. We’re mere mortals! We’re minuscule molecules in their machines! What power do we possibly have to fight back?
That was the question I posed to you, dear readers, in the previous “Crowdwise.”
Many of you responded with valuable but frequently repeated suggestions: Use a program that memorizes your passwords, and make every password different. Install an ad blocker in your web browser, like uBlock Origin. Read up on the latest internet scams. If you must use Facebook, visit its Privacy Settings page and limit its freedom to target ads to you.
What I sought, though, was non-obvious ideas.
It turns out that “digital privacy” means different things to different people.”
Everyone should go to the dentist twice a year, and read an article like this one about how to protect your privacy on the internet.
“Dr. Maris argues that this lack of disclosure is similar to the issue of sexual consent. “As in any sexual interaction, silence must not be mistaken for consent,” she said. “Individuals should have a clear understanding of the power dynamics of the sexual exchange they are entering when visiting porn sites.” Those power dynamics, according to Dr. Maris, are deeply unbalanced. “You have some of the world’s most powerful companies here,” she said, noting that there’s very little redress for the consumer should the data end up in the wrong hands.
Affirmative consent is at the heart of digital privacy. Nearly all tracking is by default and governed by impossible-to-read privacy policies. And in an era that privileges and prioritizes mass collection of personal information, that means gathering information that is not only invasive but also superfluous. The leaky user data of pornographic websites is merely an extreme example of what has become standard practice online.”
For much of human history, what we now call “privacy” was better known as being rich. Privacy, like wealth, was something that most people had little or none of. Farmers, slaves and serfs resided in simple dwellings, usually with other people, sometimes even sharing space with animals. They had no expectation that a meaningful part of their lives would be unwatchable or otherwise off limits to others. That would have required homes with private rooms. And only rich people had those.
The spread of mass privacy, surely one of modern civilization’s more impressive achievements, thus depended on another, even more impressive achievement: the creation of a middle class. Only over the past 300 years or so, as increasingly large numbers of people gained the means to control their physical environment through the acquisition of wealth and private property, did privacy norms and eventually privacy rights come into existence. What is a right to privacy without a room of your own?
The historical link between privacy and the forces of wealth creation helps explain why privacy is under siege today. It reminds us, first, that mass privacy is not a basic feature of human existence but a byproduct of a specific economic arrangement — and therefore a contingent and impermanent state of affairs. And it reminds us, second, that in a capitalist country, our baseline of privacy depends on where the money is. And today that has changed.
The forces of wealth creation no longer favor the expansion of privacy but work to undermine it. We have witnessed the rise of what I call “attention merchants” and what the sociologist Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” — the commodification of our personal databy tech giants like Facebook and Google and their imitators in telecommunications, electronics and other industries. We face a future in which active surveillance is such a routine part of business that for most people it is nearly inescapable. In this respect, we are on the road back to serfdom.
By Philip N. Howard
Professor Howard is the director of the Oxford Internet Institute and the author of “Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up.”
March 27, 2019
Some of the Facebook ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the 2016 American presidential election, released by members of the House Intelligence Committee in late 2017.
Jon Elswick/Associated Press
“Despite the best efforts of several technology firms, there still seem to be secretive groups distributing political ads without disclosing who is funding those ads. Even if Facebook starts discouraging advertisers from targeting users on the basis of race, gender or age, as it recently announced, the wealth of existing data that it has already collected will still allow advertisers to do sophisticated ad targeting.
Social media firms want to regulate themselves, and Google has threatened to withdraw all political ads in Canada if it finds transparency rules too onerous. Facebook offers political ad archives in a few countries, and searching by hand is laborious. Independent researchers can investigate trends computationally, but Facebook, Twitter and Google are doing more and more to restrict access. There is negligible access to Instagram, where huge volumes of Russian-origin misinformation now flows. Banning political ads or creating partial ad archives in some countries won’t strengthen the world’s democracies. Ad bans give incumbent politicians an unfair advantage, and establishing partial ad archives gives political ad buyers an incentive to not declare their ads as political.
Elections officials and ad regulators in the world’s democracies urgently need to sort this out: Nearly a billion people in India and across Europe will prepare to vote in the next few months, and presidential campaigning in the United States has already started. The solution is to have all technology companies put all ads, all the time, into public archives.”
“People who frequently use tanning beds experience changes in brain activity during their tanning sessions that mimic the patterns of drug addiction, new research shows.Scientists have suspected for some time that frequent exposure to ultraviolet radiation has the potential to become addictive, but the new research is the first to actually peer inside the brains of people as they lay in tanning beds.What the researchers found was that several parts of the brain that play a role in addiction were activated when the subjects were exposed to UV rays. The findings, which appear in the coming issue of the journal Addiction Biology, may help explain why some people continue to tan often despite awareness about risks such as skin cancer, premature aging and wrinkles.”
Turn to technologyDownload apps such as Truecaller, RoboKiller, Mr. Number, Nomorobo and Hiya, which will block the calls. YouMail will stop your phone from ringing with calls from suspected robocallers and deliver a message that your number is out of service.Mr. Quilici said phone companies, such as T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T, also have tools to combat robocalls. They work by blocking calls from numbers known to be problematic.Turn the tablesAnd then there is the Jolly Roger Telephone Company, which turns the tables on telemarketers. This program allows a customer to put the phone on mute and patch telemarketing calls to a robot, which understands speech patterns and inflections and works to keep the caller engaged.