It at least can feel like you’re being spied on by Silicon Valley. Sometimes the ads that are served to us on our phones have a spooky quality that makes it seem like we are being tracked and even heard by advertisers, though the latter is hotly denied and may be infeasible. This weekend, my wife, the kids, and I spent time at my in-laws’ for Father’s Day celebrations. My children played on a little toy roller coaster for outdoors that their grandmother had bought for them. The next day, Amazon advertised the same product to us. We know Amazon can see the connection between my in-laws’ household and our own. It knows we have kids who are the right age to play. But was it actually serving us this ad based on a good guess from our location data and my in-laws’ purchase history that we might have enjoyed this toy?
Late on Sunday night, we were drinking a bottle of Argentine wine. For some reason, it made me think of an Australian wine, and I asked my wife if she would like to go back and live there as she did for just three months in 2006. Even though she lived then in the central business district of Sidney, she said she would prefer Melbourne. Within an hour, Facebook showed her a viral article about how Melbourne is the happiest city. Very likely it was a coincidence, but it didn’t feel that way.
It doesn’t feel like a coincidence because we know that Facebook, Google, and other tech companies do things that are almost more insidious than responding to what we say in private. The scope of their surveillance is actually difficult to describe, but the tech proprietor Maciej Ceglowski tried, in an important essay on the loss of “ambient privacy” in the world Silicon Valley is creating. He notes that the calls for regulation coming from the CEOs of Google and Facebook reflect their self-interest. They are happy to be told by the government how to protect the “privacy” of data generated by their surveillance, so long as they can profit from it. Ultimately their interest is in seeing the creation of a “world with no ambient privacy and strong data protections.”
That is, Facebook and Google will still catalogue and analyze your behavior all across the Internet in ways that you barely realize. The regulation they desire is merely a way of removing responsibility from them for their decisions and imposing huge overhead costs on potential competitors. Most forms of “consent” to this surveillance turn out to be superficial. The amount of data Google and Facebook collect about the world sheds enough light for them to make accurate predictions about what exists in the spaces filled by non-users.
The tech giants know what sites you visit, what images you linger on, the identity of your friends and family. They can infer even secrets about your desires that you hardly admit to yourself. Facebook buys publicly available data sets to improve the value of their own data. It creates shadow profiles, compiling dossiers of information on people who have never created a profile on Facebook. Amazon was able to correctly guess and disqualify reviews of my book from people who attend the same parish that I do. If you described the surveillance and data-analytics capacity of Google or Facebook and attributed it to a foreign intelligence service, everyone would immediately recognize it as a dire threat to national security. But then you have to ask yourself: Is it the owner of the data that makes it dangerous or the existence of such a trove that is dangerous? Data leaks by Equifax and Facebook can be massively damaging.