Information Highway Robbery

Minimizing our digital footprints isn’t easy.

Susan J. Douglas

In the digital age, you're just a collection of personal data waiting to be sold.

A few months ago, my husband got a Kindle, on my recommendation. And the other week, he stomped it to death. He hadn’t known that he’d be getting unsolicited ads pumped onto the screen, and, not being inclined to work his way through to Amazon’s manage your devices” page, he just put it — and himself — out of their collective misery. (If he had learned that he would have had to pay Amazon additional money not to get the ads, I think he might have stomped it harder.) I was shocked — and impressed.

There is now more public discussion about the extent to which our privacy is being violated. Yet how many of us really understand how we have come to accept—and participate in—a surveillance culture?

The other day, I was helping a friend find hotels in Iceland. Now I can’t get rid of Find hotels in Reykjavik” on my Facebook news feed. Bought a pair of shoes online and now there’s nowhere I can hide from Zappos. Annoying, yes; but this is also creepy.

While many of us have come to accept that our online activity is being monitored and sold — and the passive voice is important here — few of us appreciate who is doing it, the extent of this tracking and that the implications go beyond the irritation of having more ads targeted to us. Data brokers have developed profiles of us that we ourselves can’t locate unless we put in substantial effort (and sometimes not even then), and there’s a whole new industry — data trading — in which those profiles are auctioned off like baseball cards, in milliseconds to advertisers. Feeling violated yet?

In her important new book, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance, ProPublica reporter Julia Angwin documents the extent to which we are constantly being watched and offers advice to minimize our digital footprints, which is easier said than done. The book is getting widespread acclaim at the same time that both the Washington Post and the Guardian U.S. have won Pulitzers for exposing widespread surveillance by the National Security Agency. As Angwin deftly outlines, government and corporate surveillance are deeply intertwined.” She notes, Government data are the lifeblood for commercial data brokers.” In other words, Zappos may be the least of our worries. What about politicians, pharmaceutical companies, counterterrorism agencies, bill collectors and the like who want to document our political affiliations, health anxieties, financial troubles and sexual behaviors?

It’s true that there is now more public discussion about the extent to which our privacy is being violated. Yet how many of us really understand how we have come to accept — and participate in — a surveillance culture? Starting in 2000, with the enormous success of Survivor and Big Brother, and pioneered earlier by MTV’s The Real World, reality TV shows recruited everyday people” (and D-list celebrities) to be watched constantly, to forfeit their privacy, in exchange for fleeting fame. Nearly 15 years later, as reality TV has metastasized to include teen moms, real” housewives of wherever, aspiring singers, models and bachelorettes, and the makers of duck hunting equipment, the watching of others has become a national pastime. Being watched, being known, having a public profile, getting multiple likes”: That’s what makes people matter. I think it is this broader cultural shift that has made too many of us indifferent to the surveillance culture that stalks and ensnares us.

Angwin provides a fact-filled and sobering history of tracking,” including crucial legal decisions that have upheld it. She quotes a member of the European Commission who says, Personal data is the new oil of the Internet and the new currency of the digital world.” This may be one of the reasons why teens have flocked to Snapchat, which deletes texts and images after 1-10 seconds. Warned about college admissions officers and employers trawling people’s Facebook pages, younger users want their digital footprints to be ephemeral. But even here, recent controversies around Snapchat Hack, an app that circumvents Snapchat’s alleged protections, and the news that images remain stored on Android device have raised privacy concerns.

Angwin offers chilling tales of unwarranted surveillance, and then lays out how she sought to assess, and counter, the threats to her privacy: It’s an important and often funny primer everyone should read. But more to the point, Dragnet Nation and the ongoing NSA scandals should prompt us to demand more regulation of the ballooning stalking industry, and to grasp the corrosive costs of accepting, and participating in, our new surveillance culture.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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