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Private Eyes Are Watching You: What it Means to Live (and Be Watched) in the Surveillance Economy

surveillance economy john sileo

What it is the Surveillance Economy

How do you feel about the fact that Facebook knows your weight, your height, your blood pressure, the dates of your menstrual cycle, when you have sex and maybe even whether you got pregnant? Even when you’re not on Facebook, the company is still tracking you as you move across the internet. It knows what shape you’re in from the exercise patterns on your fitness device, when you open your Ring doorbell app and which articles you check out on YouTube — or more salacious sites. 

Welcome to the surveillance economy — where our personal data and online activity are not only tracked but sold and used to manipulate us. As Shoshana Zuboff, who coined the term surveillance capitalism, recently wrote, “Surveillance capitalism begins by unilaterally staking a claim to private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Our lives are rendered as data flows.” In other words, in the vast world of internet commerce, we are the producers and our digital exhaust is the product. 

It didn’t have to be this way. Back when the internet was in its infancy, the government could have regulated the tech companies but instead trusted them to regulate themselves. Over two decades later, we’re just learning about the massive amounts of personal data these tech giants have amassed, but it’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle. 

The game is rigged. We can’t live and compete and communicate without the technology, yet we forfeit all our rights to privacy if we take part. It’s a false choice. In fact, it’s no choice at all. You may delete Facebook and shop at the local mall instead of Amazon, but your TV, fridge, car and even your bed may still be sharing your private data. 

As for self-regulation, companies may pay lip service to a public that is increasingly fed up with the intrusiveness, but big tech and corporate America continue to quietly mine our data. And they have no incentive to reveal how much they’re learning about us. In fact, the more they share the knowledge, the lower their profits go. 

This is one of those distasteful situations where legislation and regulation are the only effective ways to balance the power. Because as individuals, we can’t compete with the knowledge and wallet of Google, Facebook and Amazon. David versus Goliath situations like this were the genesis of government in the first place. But in 2020, can we rely on the government to protect us? 

Unlikely. At least for now. For starters, federal government agencies and local law enforcement use the same technology (including facial recognition software) for collecting data and to track our every move. And unfortunately, those who make up the government are generally among the new knowledge class whose 401Ks directly benefit by keeping quiet while the tech giants grow. Plus, there are some real benefits to ethical uses of the technology (think tracking terrorists), making regulation a difficult beast to tackle. But it’s well worth tackling anyway, just as we’ve done with nuclear submarines and airline safety.

In a recent Pew study, 62% of Americans said it was impossible to go through daily life without companies collecting data about them, and 81% said the risks of companies collecting data outweigh the benefits. The same number said they have little or no control over the data companies collect. 

At some stage, consumers will get fed up and want to take back control from the surveillance economy, and the pendulum will swing, as it already has in Europe, where citizens have a toolbox full of privacy tools to prevent internet tracking, including the right to be forgotten by businesses. Europe’s General Data Protection Rule (GDPR) is a clear reminder that consumers do retain the power, but only if they choose to. It’s not inevitable that our every move and personal data are sold to the highest bidder. We’ve happily signed on, logged in and digitized our way to this point. 

When consumers (that means you) are outraged enough, the government will be forced to step in. Unfortunately, at that point, the regulation is likely to be overly restrictive, and both sides will wish we’d come to some compromise before we wrecked the system. 

In the meantime, you have three basic choices: 

  1. Decrease your digital exhaust by eliminating or limiting the number of social media sites, devices and apps you use. (I know, I know. Not likely.)
  2. Change your privacy and security defaults on each device, app and website that collects your personal information. (More likely. But it takes a time investment and doesn’t fully solve privacy leakage.)
  3. Give in. Some people are willing to bet that a loss of privacy will never come back to haunt them. That’s exactly the level of complacency big tech companies have instilled in us using neuroscience for the past decade.  

Loss of privacy is a slippery slope, and it’s important to take the issue seriously before things get worse. Left unchecked, the private eyes watching your every move could go from tracking your exercise habits and sex life (as if that’s not creepy enough) to meddling with your ability to get health insurance or a mortgage. And suddenly it won’t seem so harmless anymore.


About Cybersecurity Keynote Speaker John Sileo

John Sileo is the founder and CEO of The Sileo Group, a privacy and cybersecurity think tank, in Lakewood, Colorado, and an award-winning author, keynote speaker, and expert on technology, surveillance economy, cybersecurity and tech/life balance.

 

Google Buys Fitbit

Google Isn’t Just Buying Fitbit, They’re Tracking Your Donut Habit

You’re heading to the gym for a workout when you decide to surprise your coworkers with a treat. You search for the nearest bagel shop on your Google Maps app, which directs you to their closest advertiser, Donut Feel Good? Your heart pounds from the joy of anticipation — your team will LOVE you (or at least the sugar rush). Just as you’re leaving Donut Feel Good, your phone dings you with a coupon for coffee across the street. “Why not?” you think, as Google subtly nudges your behavior just a bit more. While you’re in the office, basking in coworker glory, Google is busy sharing your lack of exercise and trans-fat consumption with your health insurance company.  

Welcome to the surveillance economy, where your data is the product. I’m John Sileo, privacy and security are my jam (as my kids like to say), and my goal is to make sure you’re being intentional with how you allow technology to track and share your private information, especially as you consider buying a tracker for someone you love. 

Put simply, Google is moving out of our pockets and into our bodies. Thanks to their purchase of Fitbit, the health tracking device, Google can combine what they already know about us – the content of our internet searches (Bradley – Graphic representation: Google.com), location data (maps and Android phones), emails, contacts (Gmail), conversations at home, smart speaker searches (Google Home), video watching habits (YouTube), video footage, thermostat settings (Nest) and document contents (Docs, Sheets, etc.) – they will now be able to combine this with our health data. The sheer volume of the digital exhaust they’re collecting, analyzing and selling is phenomenal. Google is at the forefront of the surveillance economy — making money by harvesting the digital exhaust we all emit just living our connected lives. 

Fitness devices and apps can track what we eat, how much we weigh, when we exercise, sleep and have low blood sugar. They know that your heart-rate increases when you shop at your favorite store, can predict menstrual cycles, record body mass index and interpret your intimate cuddling habits. And you thought that gift you were about to buy benefited the recipient. Actually, you’re paying Google to improve your personalized tracking profile that they can sell to advertisers. Which you might be okay with, but you deserve to know enough to have the choice.   

Google and Fitbit say that our data will be anonymized, secured and kept private. Blah, blah, blah. This is a common tactic I call PPSS, Privacy Policy Slippery Slope. When we stop paying attention, the tech company emails us an “updated” 100-page privacy policy that they know we will never read and can never understand. They love taking advantage of our defeatist attitude – oh, there is nothing I can do about it anyway. That attitude resigns you to being categorized into a highly profitable behavioral profile, whether that’s Healthy, Happy and Rich, or Overweight, Underpaid & Obsessed with Donuts.

In a related story, Google has been quietly working with St. Louis-based Ascension, the second-largest health system in the U.S., collecting and aggregating the detailed health information on millions of Americans. 

Code-named Project Nightingale, the secret collaboration began last year and, according to the Wall Street Journal, “encompasses lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, including patient names and dates of birth.” The Journal also reported that neither the doctors nor patients involved have been notified.

Now couple that with data on what foods we buy, where we go on vacation and our most recent Google searches, and companies will not only be able to track our behavior, they’ll be able to predict it. And behavior prediction is the holy grail of the surveillance economy. 

For the time being, you control many of the inputs that fuel the surveillance economy – but changing behavior is hard. I know because even I have to make intentional choices about how I share my health data. The keyword in that sentence is intentional.

For example, you can choose to take off your Fitbit or trust your data with Apple, which is a hardware and media company where Google is an information aggregation company. You can change the default privacy settings on your phone, your tracker and your profile. You can delete apps that track your fitness and health, buy scales that don’t connect to the internet and opt-out of information sharing for the apps and devices you must use. Your greatest tool in the fight for privacy and security is your intentional use of technology.

In other words, you do have a measure of control over your data. Donut Feel Good?

About Cybersecurity Keynote Speaker John Sileo

John Sileo is the founder and CEO of The Sileo Group, a privacy and cybersecurity think tank, in Lakewood, Colorado, and an award-winning author, keynote speaker, and expert on technology, cybersecurity and tech/life balance. 

 

Keywords:

Meta: Are you comfortable having Google own your Fitbit data to add your heart rate, exercise frequency, current weight, and sleep habits to everything else they track about you? But they promise not to share…

 

Google Isn’t Just Buying Fitbit, They’re Tracking Your Donut Habit

John Sileo: Google Fitbit to Track Your Health Data

Spinning Wildly on the Hampster Wheel of the Surveillance Economy

You’re heading to the gym for a workout when you decide to surprise your coworkers with a treat. You search for the nearest bagel shop on your Google Maps app. The app directs you to their closest advertiser, Donut Feel Good?, which is actually a donut shop just short of the bagel place. Your heart pounds from the joy of anticipation — your team will LOVE you (and the sugar rush). 

Just as you’re leaving the donut place, your phone alerts you to a coupon at your favorite coffee shop. “Why not?” you think, as Google nudges your behavior just a bit more. As you bite into your first donut and bask in coworker glory, Google is busy sharing your lack of exercise and poor eating habits with your health insurance company, which also has an app on your phone.  

Welcome to the surveillance economy, where the product is your data.

Acquiring Fitbit Moves Google Out of Your Pocket and Into Your Body 

Thanks to Google’s purchase of Fitbit, Google doesn’t just know your location, your destination and your purchases, it now knows your resting heart rate and increased beats per minute as you anticipate that first donut bite. Google is at the forefront of the surveillance economy — making money by harvesting the digital exhaust we all emit just living our lives. 

Google already has reams of data on our internet searches (Google.com), location data (maps and Android phones), emails and contacts (Gmail), home conversations and digital assistant searches (Google Home), video habits (YouTube), smarthome video footage and thermostat settings (Nest) and document contents (Docs, Sheets, etc.). The sheer volume of our digital exhaust that they’re coalescing, analyzing and selling is phenomenal.

Combine that psychographic and behavioral data with the health data of 28 million Fitbit users, and Google can probably predict when you’ll need to use the toilet. 

Fitbit tracks what users eat, how much they weigh and exercise, the duration and quality of their sleep and their heart rate. With advanced devices, women can log menstrual cycles. Fitbit scales keep track of body mass index and what percentage of a user’s weight is fat. And the app (no device required) tracks all of that, plus blood sugar.  

It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think Fitbit and other health-tracking devices also know your sexual activity and heart irregularities by location (e.g., your heart rate goes up when you pass the Tesla dealership, a car you’ve always wanted). Google wants to get its hands on all that information, and if past behavior is any indicator, they want to sell access to it. 

As Reuters noted, much of Fitbit’s value “may now lie in its health data.”

Can We Trust How Google Uses Our Health Data? 

Regarding the sale, Fitbit said, “Consumer trust is paramount to Fitbit. Strong privacy and security guidelines have been part of Fitbit’s DNA since day one, and this will not change.” 

But can we trust that promise? This is a common tactic of data user policy scope creep: Once we stop paying attention and want to start using our Fitbit again, the company will change its policies and start sharing customer data. They’ll notify us in a multipage email that links to a hundred-page policy that we’ll never read. Even if we do take the time to read it, are we going to be able to give up our Fitbit? We’ve seen this tactic play out again and again with Google, Facebook and a host of other companies.

Google put out its own statement, assuring customers the company would never sell personal information and that Fitbit health and wellness data would not be used in its advertising. The statement said Fitbit customers had the power to review, move or delete their data, but California is the only U.S. state that can require the company to do so by law — under the California Consumer Protection Act, set to go into effect next year. 

Tellingly, Google stopped short of saying the data won’t be used for purposes other than advertising. Nor did they say they won’t categorize you into a genericized buyer’s profile (Overweight, Underfit & Obsessed with Donuts) that can be sold to their partners.

And advertisements are just the tip of the iceberg. Google can use the data for research and to develop health care products, which means it will have an enormous influence on the types of products that are developed, including pharmaceuticals. If that isn’t troubling to you, remember that Google (and big pharma) are in business to make money, not serve the public good. 

Google Has Demonstrated Repeatedly That It Can’t Be Trusted with Our Data

Just this week, we learned that Google has been quietly working with St. Louis-based Ascension, the second-largest health system in the U.S., collecting and aggregating the detailed health information of millions of Americans in 21 states. 

Code-named Project Nightingale, the secret collaboration began last year and, as the Wall Street Journal reported, “The data involved in the initiative encompasses lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, including patient names and dates of birth.”

The Journal also reported that neither the doctors nor patients involved have been notified, and at least 150 Google employees have access to the personal health data of tens of millions of patients. Remarkably, this is all legal under a 1996 law that allows hospitals to share data with business partners without patients’ consent. Google is reportedly using the data to develop software (that uses AI and machine learning) “that zeroes in on individual patients to suggest changes to their care.” It was originally reported that the arrangement is all legal under a 1996 law that allows hospitals to share data with business partners without patients’ consent.

However, the day after the story broke, a federal inquiry was launched into Project Nightingale. The Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services is looking into whether HIPAA protections were fully implemented in accordance with the 1996 law.

Your Health Insurance Could Be at Stake

Likewise, Fitbit has been selling devices to employees through their corporate wellness programs for years and has teamed up with health insurers, including United Healthcare, Humana and Blue Cross Blue Shield

Even if individual data from Fitbit users isn’t shared, Google can use it to deduce all sorts of health trends. It’s also possible that “anonymous” information can be re-identified, meaning data can be matched with individual users. This sets up a scenario where we can be denied health care coverage or charged higher premiums based on data gathered on our eating or exercise habits. 

Now couple that with data on what foods we buy, where we go on vacation and our most recent Google searches, and companies will not only be able to track our behavior, they’ll be able to predict it. This kind of digital profile makes a credit report look quaint by comparison.

Get Off the Hamster Wheel

For the time being, you control many of the inputs that fuel the surveillance economy. You can choose to take off your Fitbit. You can change the default privacy settings on your phone. You can delete apps that track your fitness and health, buy scales that don’t connect to the internet and opt-out of information sharing for the apps and devices you must use. Your greatest tool in the fight for privacy is your intentional use of technology.

In other words, you do have a measure of control over your data. Donut Feel Good?


About Cybersecurity Keynote Speaker John Sileo

John Sileo is the founder and CEO of The Sileo Group, a privacy and cybersecurity think tank, in Lakewood, Colorado, and an award-winning author, keynote speaker, and expert on technology, cybersecurity and tech/life balance.

Google and Facebook Go Deeper Into Your Privacy

This post is a summary of an excellent article appearing in USA Today By Byron Acohido, Scott Martin and Jon Swartz.

It’s a heated competition to tap what many experts predict will be the next big Internet gold rush — online advertising — Google and Facebook laid down very big bets, during a week when European regulators are hashing out strict new rules that could prevent much of what the tech giants seek to do.

Google signaled its intent to begin correlating data about its users’ activities across all of its most popular services and across multiple devices. The goal: to deliver those richer behavior profiles to advertisers.

Likewise, Facebook announced it will soon make Timeline the new, more glitzy user interface for its service, mandatory. Timeline is designed to chronologically assemble, automatically display and make globally accessible the preferences, acquaintances and activities for most of Facebook’s 800 million members.

“If they can make the ads more relevant, the logic goes, they can increase the number of advertisers and the price they can charge per click (on each ad),” says Alex Daley, chief investment strategist at Casey Research. “Because the click will be from more qualified leads — customers who are more interested in the product — they can grow the revenue base.”

But security analysts, privacy advocates and technologists say consumers probably should be very concerned. While making richer behavioral data more readily available to advertisers, Google’s new data-correlating practices and Facebook’s new Timeline and Open Graph, a more powerful way to express preferences on third-party websites, also tend to aid and abet more unsavory uses.

Richer personal details are very beneficial to identity thieves and cyberspies, as well as to parties motivated to use such data unfairly against consumers, such as insurance companies, prospective employers, political campaigners and, lately, hacktivists, security analysts say.

“What these unilateral decisions by Google and Facebook demonstrate is a complete disregard for their users’ interests and concerns,” says John Simpson, spokesman for Consumer Watchdog. “It’s an uncommonly arrogant approach not usually seen in business, where these companies believe they can do whatever they want with our data, whenever and however they want to do it.”

The deeper personal data of Timeline — which Facebook users willfully share — are potentially online advertising gold for marketers and advertisers. This is especially crucial, analysts say, as Facebook has finalized it’s initial public stock offering.

John Sileo is an award-winning author and international speaker on the dark art of deception (identity theft, data privacy, social media manipulation) and its polar opposite, the powerful use of trust, to achieve success. He is CEO of The Sileo Group, which advises teams on how to multiply performance by building a culture of deep trust. His clients include the Department of Defense, Pfizer, the FDIC, and Homeland Security. Sample his Keynote Presentation (he shares how he lost $300,000, 2 years and his business to data breach) or watch him on Anderson Cooper, 60 Minutes or Fox Business. 1.800.258.8076.

iPhone and Droid Want to Be Your Big Brother

Remember the iconic 1984 Super Bowl ad with Apple shattering Big Brother? How times have changed! Now they are Big Brother.

According to recent Wall Street Journal findings, Apple Inc.’s iPhones and Google Inc.’s Android smartphones regularly transmit your locations back to Apple and Google, respectively. This new information only intensifies the privacy concerns that many people already have regarding smartphones. Essentially, they know where you are anytime your phone is on, and can sell that to advertisers in your area (or will be selling it soon enough).

The actual answer here is for the public to put enough pressure on Apple and Google that they stop the practice of tracking our location-based data and no longer collect, store or transmit it in any way without our consent.

You may ask, “don’t all cell phone carriers know where you are due to cell tower usage?” Yes, but Google and Apple are not cell phone carriers, they are software and hardware designers and should have no real reason (other than information control) to be tracking your every move without your knowledge. Google and Apple are not AT&T or Verizon, therefore they should not be recording, synching and transmitting your location like it appears they are.

Both companies are trying to build huge databases that allow them to pinpoint your exact location. So how are they doing it? By recording the cell phone towers and WiFi hotspots that you pass and that your phone utilizes. This data will ultimately be used to help them market location based services to their audience, which is a market that is expected to rise $6 billion in the next 3 years.

The Wall Street Journal found through research by security analyst Samy Kamkar, the HTC Android phone collected its location every few seconds and transmitted the data to Google at least several times an hour. It transmitted the name, location and signal strength of any nearby WiFi networks, as well as a unique phone identifier. This was not as personal of information like what the Street-View cars collected that Google had to shut down some time ago.

So what do we do now? According to the Wall Street Journal, neither Apple or Google commented when contacted about these findings, so it is hard to know the extent of how they are using the data collected. Right now, there really isn’t much you can do to stop GPS tracing of your location without your consent. Of course you could power down your phone, but we are all way too additcted to these handy little digital Swiss Army Knives to do that. You can turn of GPS services, but again, that makes it impossible to use maps and other location-based apps.

The actual answer here is for the public to put enough pressure on Apple and Google that they stop the practice of tracking our location-based data and no longer collect, store or transmit it in any way without our consent.

While this may be the future of privacy, it is better that we are aware of what may come rather than remain in the dark about the possibilities of technology.

John Sileo is the President of The Sileo Group and the award winning author of four books, including his latest workbook, The Smartphone Survival Guide. He speaks around the world on identity theft, online reputation and influence. His clients include the Department of Defense, Pfizer and Homeland Security. Learn more at www.ThinkLikeASpy.com.