I should begin this post by saying that there is nothing inherently wrong with using and improving your life with an internet services platform like Google. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with using a Windows operating system. Or Apple products, for that matter. Billions of people around the world use these systems everyday without negative consequence. Their advancement has provided untold ability to learn and improve life for nearly everyone on the planet, that much is certain. The problem with services like Google lie in their newfound ubiquity, as well as their ability to store vast amounts of data on us - including details as personal as our physical location - with little to no external oversight. And our continued use of these services enable and affirm such moves, providing these services with the justification they need to continue on their privacy onslaught. Google’s success in propagating itself to every corner of our lives - with our full acquiescence - is the reason we should be so determined to resist it.
The questions here are simple: What fundamental responsibility do we have to our own information? What are our personal details, our meetings and writing, our entire lives that are now exceedingly being stored and lived on the internet, really worth to us? What rights do we really have when we use publicly-available services with privacy policies that are dozens of pages long? This is something that only each individual can decide for themselves. But these questions are only becoming more pertinent. As an incredible amount of our lives these days is lived on the Internet, it merits a very serious and sober look at just what we own and who we give it to for “safekeeping.”
When there is no external oversight over an organization that safeguards our data, you must trust that organization to always act in your best interests. Once upon a time, Google’s slogan was “do no evil.” Those days are, of course, now long gone. Google’s quest for power and consolidation of the internet services market has reached a fever pitch. This closing of the online ecosystem has given it (and, by extension, its advertisers) unprecedented and centralized access to our personal data.
The centralization of data on large platforms such as Google provides new and substantial improvements to the ease-of-use and the ease-of-access we experience in using our data. Unfortunately there is a corresponding improvement in corporate and governmental access to the same data. Not only do these entities have to cut a considerable amount of time and red-tape out of their information gathering operations by only having to deal with one platform, they also win by being able to standardize their approaches against one uniform set of rules and policies for this platform.
While Google has done a notable job in providing transparency when it comes to “official” government takedown requests on its various services, one can see that the amount of them are growing each and every year. Not all of them are granted (thankfully) but this is only due to Google’s insistence. When the financial incentive to resist no longer swings their way, however, one will find that even the most well-intentioned company will change their tune remarkably quick. When your last line of defence for your data is trusting in a corporation, which has its own prerogatives and incentives, this defence is a weak one indeed.
Most believe that if they do not break the law online, they will not be targeted by governments. The age-old slogan “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide,” has lost any merit it may have ever had. In these days of wireless surveillance, we know that any individual can be caught up in the fray. From the US and UK’s monitoring of Occupy activists to the Obama administration’s breathless expansion of state surveillance powers, governments around the world have raced to prove that, even if you stand up for a cause you believe in, peacefully and well within your “rights,” you will be targeted. Even if you are a simple bystander, your personal data can be rifled through with impunity. Personal information of innocent people is constantly being vacuumed up and sifted through by the national security establishment. Quite simply, “rights” on the Internet’s public services do not exist.
Even if you’ve “done nothing wrong,” and you don’t care about government spooks looking through your daily calendar, it’s even more absurd that companies like Facebook and Google are gathering huge volumes of advertising data on us without most people knowing. This data can be used to create intricate profiles of our daily lives, giving companies much more information than we may even know about our own selves. An Austrian law student currently pursuing Facebook in court found that the company had more than 1,000 pages of data on him. This would not only include his favourite movies and drunk self-portraits: intimate details of his browsing history (on Facebook or elsewhere), and advertising profiles created based on the things he’s viewed, liked and subscribed to. Facebook created his very own consumer image, and this data gets sold to advertising groups around the world. Unaccountable corporations can then trade in your personal data for them to enrich themselves at your expense. This brings up an even more confounding fundamental question: why do we let companies like Facebook monetize our universe like this with impunity? Is it right that companies get to sell our intimate details without our knowledge for their astronomical profit?
When it comes to security and data rights online, things are only moving in one direction. And that is towards more control for large corporations and governments, and less control for individual users. In the best of cases, this means our private and intimate data being used to enrich morally unscrupulous corporations. In the worst, it means surveillance, monitoring and snooping for those who express an opinion the government might not endorse. These serious concerns for safety and privacy can only be countered with a cohesive strategy for personal data liberation and independence.