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Is Privacy Worth Worrying About?

This morning I had to add my debit card number into Facebook Messenger in order to receive some money someone sent me.

And just for a minute I thought, “Do I really want to give my debit card number to Facebook? I mean they just had yet another data breach of nearly 267,000,000 American users personal data?”

No, I don’t want to do that. Facebook has proven over and over again that they can’t be trusted with personal information.

Ultimately, I find digital privacy is something that people want theoretically but is simply outweighed by the convenience offered.

They want to protect their privacy but want the apps they love more.

San Diego has installed Smart Streetlights to collect data to help the city operate more efficiently and provide better services to residents.(City of San Diego)
San Diego has installed Smart Streetlights to collect data to help the city operate more efficiently and provide better services to residents.
(City of San Diego)

Yesterday, I was thinking about privacy as I was driving to buy Christmas presents for my kids. As I waited on a red light I noticed an official City of San Diego vehicle working on a stop light. They were attaching a camera. On a Sunday. On the street lamp post immediately next to it was a ShotSpotter listening device that records every sound at that intersection, listening for the frequency of a gunshot while also picking up and recording every other sound along the way. The same lamp post also has a CCTV camera the police have access to.

The light turned green and I continued driving. As I approached the next stop light… the same set-up. A camera pointed at traffic, a ShotSpotter, a CCTV camera on the sidewalk. And as I drove from the College Area to Kearney Mesa I noticed the same set-up at nearly every intersection.

It’s all powered by a partnership with a for-profit company, General Electric’s CityIQ. All of that data is stored in the cloud, a cloud owned by GE, a cloud governed by a privacy policy and not law. (A privacy policy residents and visitors of San Diego did not opt into, by the way.)

Want to be terrified? Look who GE says has access to this data?

The public has pushed back on this invasion of privacy but the city has pressed forward to the point where crews are installing it on Sunday.

Do we care that police have installed microphones and cameras outside of our houses? Are they protecting us or are they just spying on us?

And who else has access to this data?

How is this data used? How is it abused? Are those abuses disclosed to us? All questions cities around the world are avoiding.

Because they don’t know. APIs and “other partners” means literally anyone.

What about my privacy at home, behind closed doors?

Let’s look at just one example… OK, two. There are hundreds.

On Saturday, I had a conversation with some friends about a question I hear people talk about all the time: “Is my phone listening to me? Why is it that if I talk about something with my friends I suddenly see ads for that thing on Facebook or Google ads?”

Facebook vehemently denies this. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified as such to Congress on April 10th, 2018.

But, I think if you listen very carefully to what Zuckerberg says in his answer you see that he leaves it open as a possibility… and in his lack of denial I think he confirms it. He first say firmly, “No.” But when the Senator moves on he interrupts him realizing that he’s just lied to Congress and Congress would know since they have a partnership (of sorts) with the Intelligence Community. He then starts listing off some exceptions. “Well, we listen under some circumstances…” Notice in his answer lists a couple of exceptions but doesn’t do so exhaustively. Clever, Zuck. Real clever.

In June 2018 VICE reporter Sam Nichols wrote about this very topic, exploring how apps like Facebook may have thousands of “trigger words” which may indeed cause the app to send back audio data to mine for ads. You are likely familiar with trigger words for Amazon’s Alexa service or Apple’s Siri. (In our house, Jackson is triggered by the word “pizza.” Similar, but a little different. If Kristen and I whisper Jackson’s trigger word he will hear it from another room and come rushing in to ask if we’re having pizza for dinner.)

Nichols writes that Facebook doesn’t make that data, what you talk about when the app is on but not directly typing into the app itself, available through their normal ad platform but is likely selling access to those users in another way.

“Rather than saying here’s a list of people who followed your demographic, they say Why don’t you give me some money, and I’ll make that demographic or those who are interested in this will see it. If they let that information out into the wild, they’ll lose that exclusive access to it, so they’re going to try to keep it as secret as possible.

Your Phone Is Listening and it’s Not Paranoia, Sam Nichols for VICE
Nothing to see here. Nothing to be concerned about. But there’s a file on Amazon’s servers with all the things your baby is saying and doing. No COPPA violations with that, I’m sure they wouldn’t target your baby. And I’m sure your baby has 100% consented to being recorded, just like The Truman Show.

People happily breach their in-home privacy

This Christmas approximately 2.5 bajillion homes will install active listening devices inside their homes. The Amazon Echo and similar devices actively listen for a trigger word. And, while listening for that trigger word, it most certainly scoops up everything else going on in the house, records it (indefinitely) and converts what it hears to text, which is stored in your account and accessed for advertising purposes by Amazon and other vendors.

Earlier this year I asked my Facebook friends if they were worried about this… they aren’t. The convenience and fun of AI simply outweighs any privacy concerns they might have. Even when I told them this data was usable in court, their opinion didn’t change.

“But my life is boring.”

Let me just say… your life might be boring to you… but:

  • It’s not boring to advertisers who want to know what you’re watching, what you’re talking about, what you’re looking for on Google, what you’re having for dinner, what you’re wearing, etc. All of that is very, very interesting to advertisers.
  • You life is boring until it isn’t. What if you’re sued and a lawyer successfully argues that the conversations you’ve had with your friends over a beer are admissible in court? What if someone accidentally stumbles into your account? What if you are blackmailed because someone accessed your purchase history?

We already know unintentional Alexa recordings have been used in court. How much longer until that same information becomes accessible to other agencies for a small fee? You don’t know and since you’ve agreed to have these devices in your life you have consented to more than you realize. It could happen or it might not.

You might not ever know that you got passed over for a job because your potential employer paid a service to give them a profile of what you do in your home.

People happily breach their own privacy with their phones

Very convenient and cool. But would you be OK sharing this information with your employer?

If you are an Apple iPhone user, consider the information you can share with Apple. Your location 24/7/365. Access to your email, social media, text messages, other messaging services, voice data, biometrics like facial recognition and fingerprint data. It records your steps. You can opt into having it record your menstrual cycle, sexual history, medical records, eating habits, exercise routine. If you use Wallet, it knows where you are traveling, what you are purchasing, what concerts or games you go to. Plus, it has it’s own trigger phrases so it too is always actively or passively listening.

Amazon. Google. Facebook. Apple.

You trust these four companies with everything about you. But can you trust them? Can you trust every single employee with access to that information? Can you trust that they are protecting your data from hackers? Can you trust that they are protecting that data from your own government or other governments who might want access to that?

No, you cannot trust them.

They have more data and money than most nations governments, have very little (if any) regulation, and when they get busted for things like manipulating the 2016 Presidential elections… they have enough money to make everything go away.

You aren’t their customer. You are their product. You are their commodity.

Let me be clear, no you cannot trust them.

But you do. Begrudgingly I do, too. And for the most part none of us seem to care.

The convenience outweighs all of the concerns.

“But my life is boring. Why would anyone want my personal information?”

Those four companies above want it all. What you say, what you think, what you buy, where you go, who you talk to, what you read, where you work, what you do for fun, what you eat, who you are sleeping with, what you look like, what you buy, what you want to buy, what you owe, how much money is in your bank account, what you’re worried about, what your goals are… they want it all and you gleefully give it to them!

Combined they are worth trillions of dollars because we don’t think any of that is worth anything but it is.

If We’re Lucky

  • Here in San Diego the San Diego Police Department, an organization that has over and over again proven that they disproportionally target people of color, is getting access to an unbelievable amount of public data without so much as a policy where the public gets to know what they are doing with it.
  • In our homes we give companies an unbelievable amount of data so we can have a device tell us jokes and play music.
  • In our personal lives, with our phones, we give companies an unbelievable amount of data. We spend more time and pour more personal information into our phones than we do our spouses.

If we’re lucky it won’t hurt us. If we’re lucky.

I think this is something we need to be much more worried about than we are. It’s very concerning to me that we’ve traded convenience for privacy and no one seems to care.

That’s just what they want.

Oh, and by the way, I gave Facebook my debit card number this morning. I’m sure they’ll take good care of it…

By Adam McLane

Adam McLane is a partner at The Youth Cartel, co-author of A Parent's Guide to Understanding Social Media, blogger of 10+ years, and a fan of all things San Diego State University Aztecs.

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