Different ways that businesses use our online personal data.

“The future is private”.

The four famous words declared by Mark Zuckerberg, The CEO of Facebook at a conference viewed by billions of people from all over the globe. But in reality, how private is our future?

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There has been loads of speculation throughout the years on whether our lives, both the online and the offline are being surveilled, tracked or manipulated. Although it has been denied by all companies and organisations, which the general digital user trusts in, some things just cannot be disregarded as accidental or coincidental and should be questioned.

New technologies and technological devices have proven to serve a great deal of importance in our everyday life, with their useful applications such as GPS to help with navigation, search engines for everyday queries and social media, where the mass communication and social gatherings take place.

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When looked at from an entertainment point of view, these apps seem harmless to the oblivious user and frankly quite helpful! It is when you start to look deeper and notice certain patterns that things get a tad bit worrying.

The discreet amount of data that is taken on every day-to-day basis is unreal. From a simple Google maps application or a Google search, showing how fast you drive, how fast you type, where you live, hobbies, friends list and even spelling mistakes can reveal a lot about your identity.

The phrase “Facebook is listening to you” is said a lot from Facebook users as the undeniable specific ads that are run on Facebook have become concerningly too accurate. The claim that Facebook is not listening to you is in a way, true, but not entirely accurate. Facebook, amongst other apps that use the same tactics, have become so good at tracking your every move through other social activities, that they seem like they are very good at listening! Online shopping, location sharing, card transactions and many others, are all ways in which apps can get information from you to suggest ads which they think are relevant to you specifically.

Illustration by Cherise Micallef

Businesses often disregard this means of surveillance by stating that they collect data to improve service. Whilst in most cases this is deemed to be true, a lot of information and personal data is collected to be analysed to develop what Shoshana Zuboff calls “Models of Human Behaviour” (vpro documentary, 2019). According to Zuboff, these organisations are collecting way more data than required, a situation which she calls “Behavioural Surplus” (vpro documentary, 2019). This excessive data collected makes the user more predictable in what they are likely going to do next, hence a user is more likely to be presented with ads which they didn’t know they needed in the first place.

Pokémon Go, a popular augmented reality mobile game, which reached its peak in 2016, has been speculated a lot since its rise in the gaming industry.

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This game gave opportunity for players with that common interest to gather together and play but the underlying motive of the game is so much deeper that the company let on. What users are not aware of is that Pokémon Go is run by google, which is the pioneer of surveillance capitalism. What is happening with this app is that businesses are buying “Foot Fall” where real people with real feet go into real business establishments. With the aid of the game, people are lured into shops to buy their products and have their every move monitored through the game (vpro documentary, 2019).

These things happen right under our noses, but as rightly said by social psychologist, Shoshana Zuboff, “ You will not ask questions because you are so busy being entertained”. So, the next time you call out “Hey Google” or “Hey Siri”, think twice about what else might be listening to you and taking away your privacy and your own personal identity.

This blog is a project for Study Unit DGA3008, University of Malta.

References

vpro documentary. (2019, December 21). Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism | VPRO Documentary [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIXhnWUmMvw