Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Privacy? What's that?

Sandra Parshall

It’s just as we suspected: Google, Facebook, and Amazon really are trying to hijack our brains and take control of our lives.

By gathering information about our habits – where we shop, what we buy, where we vacation, the music we listen to, the books we read, and so much more – they’re building databases that allow them to nudge us toward specific products, restaurants, stores, etc. The collection process is called data mining or “reality mining.” And the best source of information about you isn’t necessarily your computer; it’s probably your smartphone. Data collected from a smartphone can track the user’s movements and build a detailed profile of that person’s everyday habits.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt said recently that he believes most people “want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” Google is gearing up to do exactly that.

Facebook may be way ahead of Google, though. FB already has connections to a legion of corporations and organizations, and clicking the little “Like” symbol on their websites delivers information to FB about your preferences and habits. More is coming: Recently Facebook paid a mere $15 million for a competitor, the social network called FriendFeed. Although FF is tiny (1 million users) compared to FB (500+ million), it already has something Facebook doesn’t: a built-in search feature for tracking all user activity. If the programmers plug this feature into the FB site, all your “friends” will be able to see everything you do on the internet. (Oh, look, my old pal Jack is visiting a porn site!) Something to look forward to, huh?

Most of the information-gathering is for commercial purposes, of course. Why would anybody bother with mass invasion of privacy unless there’s money in it? Many people are cooperating by putting FB apps on their smartphones, clicking “Like” on corporate sites, and tweeting relentlessly about their every movement and change of mood. Unless we’ve drilled down far enough to find the opt-out button, our FB friends can already see exactly where we are at all times. This information does not vanish into the ether and it’s not restricted to our friends. It goes into a database, and the data mining continues day and night, in real time.

Maybe we’ll reach the point where we never have to go shopping. Google, Facebook, and Amazon will know exactly what we want even before we do, and they’ll automatically charge it to our credit cards (of course they have the account numbers) and deliver it right to our doors. 


Tina said...

I read an interesting editorial that suggested we're too far down this road to turn back (unplugged in a cabin in the woods being the only viable alternative). The article suggested the only privacy left is of the "one of the herd" variety, that all we can do now is flood the system with so much information that our personal stuff gets lost in the stream. Not sure that'll work either.

Sandra Parshall said...

Many smartphone users have no idea how much information about their activities is available to others. For example, I saw a news story a couple days ago about a woman who was being stalked by a tech-savvy guy who followed her movements via the GPS imbedded in her phone.

Pauline Alldred said...

Although I'm tempted and I'd certainly like the experience so I can incorporate that in my stories, I've resisted buying a smartphone. After reading what you said, I think I'll continue not to buy one. Sometimes I want to be away from digital communication. I'll catch up later.

Sandra Parshall said...

I have almost no use for a cell phone, but I see people using them everywhere to read e-mail and surf the web as well as make phone calls. I knew the GPS was included to help emergency personnel find people, but I didn't realize until I saw the recent news story that others can tap into it to find out where people are.

Sandra Parshall said...

I just saw a quote from one of the co-founders of Google, who said the perfect search engine will be "like the mind of God." By that I assume he means it would have access to a huge amount of data about your interests and tastes and would provide search results accordingly.

Kaye George said...

I have a cell phone, but it's the clunkiest (cheapest) one I can find, not smart at all.

I think I'm skewing fb's profile of me, though. Whenever anyone asks me to click their "like" button, I always do. Doesn't mean I like it, doesn't mean I don't like it, I'm just being polite.

Donnell said...

Sandra, I'm late with this. I have a cell phone that is constantly going dead from disuse. Gosh, this is scary business. One minute I think I need to evolve, and the next minute I think, don't you dare!