The fire of innovation and progress is roaring, fueled by technological and cultural changes that have twisted and turned the world as we know it. The most obvious component of this change is the ubiquitousness of the smartphone: a super-powerful computer that can fit in our pocket and has a larger variety of uses to us than a box does to a cat. But many other components have led us to be tied closer to our phones, and many of these services come at a free or incredibly inexpensive price. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Instagram, and many other sites are providing their services like a noble gas, free of charge (for now). And yet, these same companies are some of the most profitable and fastest growing companies that the United States has ever seen as they begin to look like the steel and oil companies of the Gilded Age. Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s massive accumulation of wealth and power place them up there with people like Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt as the richest people in US history.And yet, these same companies are some of the most profitable and fastest growing companies that the United States has ever seen. But if the product is free, how are these tech companies making billions of dollars?
With the incredible earnings these tech companies make, you could expect that consumers pay a pretty penny for the products these companies sell, or that they sell a product so common and necessary that everyone buys it. Both of these things are true, yet, we are still able to use facebook, google, and other internet services for free. It seems impossible that the largest and wealthiest tech companies have gotten so rich by providing a free product. If that were the case, it would be impossible. Lucky for them, that is not the case. We are not the consumers; we are the commodity.
Shoshanna Zuboff, a Harvard business school professor, describes this kind of business model as a part of surveillance capitalism. Zuboff describes surveillance capitalism as a way for businesses to make profits, by primarily collecting data on what internet users say, do, search, buy, and more on the internet. Then they use that data to influence how we make decisions. That something can be seemingly harmless, like tailoring advertisements we see to suit our wants and needs better. Or something a bit more sinister, like changing what we can see on the internet by showing different Google search results based on where you live, what you have looked at in the past and more.
Quartz recently found out that Google was using cell tower data on Android phones to find users’ location even when they had turned their location services off. Amazon tracks what we buy, Google tracks which link we click on, Facebook can see our friend groups, and it feels like nowhere on the internet is free from surveillance. Couple that with the reminder that Congress got rid of rules that required internet service providers (ISPs) to get your consent before selling browsing history and other user-specific data and say goodbye to any private life you think you have on the internet.
Assume You’re Being Watched
Information is the key to survival. Knowing the way the internet makes money and how it affects your time on the internet is incredibly important to keep in mind as you browse. There are many ways to react to this information and many ways to combat this issue. You can choose to do whichever fits best your lifestyle, but you should do something. Don’t think you’re private on the internet. Don’t assume your information won’t be found. Don’t ignore “terms and conditions.”
So what can you do? There are many measures you can take with this information, but here, I’ll spell out three to choose from and go over their merits and flaws.
The first I’ll call the glass house strategy. The glass house strategy is the one schools typically promote and could be considered the “Abstinence Only” education of the internet. You should pretend that everything you do on the internet is as if you’re living in a glass house. Everyone can, at all times, see what you’re doing so you should act as such.The issue is that it’s pretty easy to mess up, and limits what you can do on the internet.
The second I’ll call the underground strategy. The underground strategy consists of using things like Virtual Private Networks (VPN), secure browsers, and intense security programs to hide any tracks you make online. Turn off cookies, location services and use non-tracking social media sites that allow you to keep an anonymous presence. You’ll also have to download a browser that doesn’t track your data.This way is the least limiting to what you can do on the internet but is not 100% secure. Often, even with security features turned on and VPNs in use, ISPs and other internet services will be able to track what you’re doing, even if they cannot connect it to your name or Internet Protocol Address.
The third, and last strategy, I’ll call the informed user. The informed user involves the use of certain websites (or a lot of research) to know the “terms and conditions” of every website you use to know what data they’re tracking and what they are doing with it. This gives you the best mix of freedom on the internet and security of the three options but involves the most work on your part.