I just watched “The Circle”, a thriller about a computer company which uses internet connectedness to eradicate privacy in the name of “transparency” and “democracy”. The film is fictional, but the conflict between privacy and internet capitalism is real. The giants of the computer world routinely collect as much information as they can about people who use their services, and then employ it to sell us products or sell it to others for that purpose.
An editorial in WIRED warned in 2015, “You aren’t just going to lose your privacy, you’re going to have to watch the very concept of privacy be rewritten under your nose.”
The history of “cookies” exemplifies both sides of the issue of internet privacy. Cookies are data stored on your computer by a website you are visiting, perhaps without your knowledge. They were developed in the 1990s as a way for the Netscape web browser, dominant at the time, to keep track of whether visitors had used the site before. Cookies turned out to be useful in assembling the “shopping carts” that we use to put together a list of online purchases.
Their potential to record and store information about individuals was soon recognized as a window into our personal preferences. When Amazon suggests that you might like to buy a book based on what you have looked at before, or any other advertiser seems to know your browsing history, they are using cookies.
Some cookies disappear when you turn off your computer, but others, called persistent or tracking cookies, are designed to remain on your computer for an indefinite time, monitoring your browsing habits and sending that information to private companies. Cookies are set into your computer not only by the website you are visiting, but by advertisers on that site. A visit to one website can result in 10 or even 100 “third-party cookies” being put on your computer.
Let’s be specific. The phone companies Verizon and AT&T allowed an online advertising clearinghouse named TURN to track customers’ habits on their smartphones and tablets. TURN used a “zombie cookie” which could not be deleted by the customer, even if they opted out of cookie usage. Only after this was reported by ProPublica, did AT&T agree to stop the practice, but Verizon didn’t. So cookies are useful commercial tools that invade what used to be our private spaces.
As Chris Hoofnagle, a lecturer at UC Berkeley Law School, says, “On a macro level, ‘we need to track everyone everywhere for advertising’ translates into ‘the government being able to track everyone everywhere.’”
One of the exciting new developments in computer connectedness is the “internet of things”, the networking among objects we own, like cars, refrigerators, thermostats, and light switches, so they can communicate with us and with each other. In cute ads on TV, a baby turns lights on and off at home by touching a smart phone. In real life, the most basic of your daily actions at home can be monitored and recorded by companies you don’t know about or be hacked by criminals.
Corporations are created to make money, not to be nice, or even fair to consumers. Nest Labs created a $300 device with a “Lifetime Subscription” that allows you to control many of the newly invented home electronics from your phone. Google bought Nest in 2014 and decided in 2016 to remotely disable these devices without notifying customers. Short lifetime.
Cookies were being stored on our computers without our knowledge for several years before the Federal Trade Commission began to question whether this was an invasion of privacy that called for some government oversight. This is the context for the current political argument about “net neutrality”. Should the Federal Communications Commission regulate internet providers, as they do for other utilities?
The idea of net neutrality is that internet service providers, who control what appears on the internet, should treat all reasonable content equally, not allowing companies like Google, Microsoft and Amazon to decide to create fast and slow lanes of transmission, putting their preferred content in the fastest lane and slowing down competitors’ content. Just like the phone companies have to let all calls through, not just the ones they like best.
Ajit Pai, Trump’s newly appointed head of the FCC, says he wants to dismantle regulations like net neutrality that have been placed on internet providers. Republicans in Congress, by party-line votes, are trying to remove regulations which protect our privacy and freedom of choice. If the government steps out of the internet, how much danger are we in?
A few days ago, perhaps 1 million Google accounts across the country, including mine, received fraudulent email messages purporting to be from Google Docs, trying to get us to click on a link so criminals could hijack our accounts.
Who protected me? The IT staff at Illinois College sent out a warning. Google itself noticed the attack very quickly and removed fake web pages. But my government did nothing in this case. Without government oversight we are at the mercy of rapacious corporations and criminal hackers. “The Circle” is a warning: the internet might not be your friend.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 9, 2017