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Daily surveillance of the general public by Google, along with Facebook, is far more insidious than anything spies get up to, writes John Naughton for The Observer.
When Edward Snowden first revealed the extent of government surveillance of our online lives, the then foreign secretary, William (now Lord) Hague, immediately trotted out the old chestnut: ‘‘If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.’’
This prompted replies along the lines of: ‘‘Well then, foreign secretary, can we have that photograph of you shaving while naked?’’, which made us laugh, perhaps, but rather diverted us from pondering the absurdity of Lord Hague’s remark. Most people have nothing to hide, but that doesn’t give the State the right to see them as fair game for intrusive surveillance.
By now, most internet users are aware that they are being watched, but may not yet appreciate the implications of it
During the hoo-ha, one of the spooks with whom I discussed Mr Snowden’s revelations waxed indignant about our coverage of the story. What bugged him (pardon the pun) was the unfairness of having state agencies pilloried while firms such as Google and Facebook, which, in his opinion, conducted much more intensive surveillance than the NSA or GCHQ, got off scot-free.
His argument was that he and his colleagues were at least subject to some degree of democratic oversight, but the companies, whose business model is essentially ‘‘surveillance capitalism’’, were entirely unregulated.
He was right.
‘‘Surveillance’’, as security
expert Bruce Schneier has observed, is the business model of the internet and that is true of both the public and private sectors.
Given how central the network has become to our lives, that means our societies have embarked on the greatest uncontrolled experiment in history.
Without really thinking about it, we have subjected ourselves to relentless, intrusive, comprehensive surveillance of all our activities and much of our most intimate actions and thoughts.
And we have no idea what the long-term implications of this will be for our societies — or for us as citizens.
One thing we do know, though: we behave differently when we know we are being watched. There is much evidence about this from experimental psychology and other fields, but most of that comes from small-scale studies conducted under controlled conditions.
By comparison, our current experiment is cosmic in scale: nearly 2billion people on Facebook, for example, doing stuff every day. Or the 3.5billion searches that people type every day into Google.
All this activity is leaving digital trails that are logged, stored and analysed.
We are being watched 24x7x365 by machines running algorithms that rummage through our digital trails and extract meaning (and commercial opportunities) from them.
We have solid research, for example, which shows that Facebook ‘‘likes’’ can be used to ‘‘automatically and accurately predict a range of personal attributes including sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age and gender’’.
The idea that being watched on this scale isn’t affecting our behaviour is implausible, to put it mildly.
Throughout history, surveillance has invariably had a chilling effect on freedom of thought and expression.
It affects, for example, what you search for. After the Snowden revelations, traffic to Wikipedia articles on topics that raise privacy concerns for internet users decreased significantly.
Another research project found that people’s Google searches changed significantly after users realised what the NSA looked for in their online activity. (Even today, doing a Google search for ‘‘backpack’’ and ‘‘pressure cooker’’ might not be a good idea — as a New York family discovered after the Boston Marathon bombing.)
By now, most internet users are aware that they are being watched, but may not yet appreciate the implications of it.
If that is indeed the case, then a visit to an interesting new website — Social Cooling — might be instructive.
It illustrates the way social media assembles a ‘‘data mosaic’’ about each user that includes not just the demographic data you’d expect, but also things such as your real (as opposed to your ‘‘projected’’) sexual orientation, whether you’ve been a victim of rape, had an abortion, whether your parents divorced before you were 21, whether you’re an ‘‘empty nester’’, are ‘‘easily addictable’’ or ‘‘into gardening’’, etc.
On the basis of these parameters, you are assigned a score that determines not just what advertisements you might see, but also whether you get a mortgage.
Once people come to understand that (for example) if they have the wrong friends on Facebook, they may pay more for a bank loan, then they will start to adjust their behaviour (and maybe change their friends) just to get a better score.
They will begin to conform to ensure that their data mosaic keeps them out of trouble.
They will not search for certain health-related information on Google in case it affects their insurance premiums. And so on.
Surveillance chills, even when it’s not done by the State.
And even if you have nothing to hide, you may have something to fear. — Guardian News and Media