Belated Recognition: Barn Burned, Intelligence Costco Operating

December 18, 2019

Amnesty International has described the “Architecture of Surveillance.” Quick out of the gate?

Concerns about privacy and the ways in which large tech companies use and profit off user data have been more and more in the news lately. A recent report by Amnesty International goes so far as to say Facebook and Google, in particular, maintain a “surveillance-based business model.” Common Dreams discusses the report in its article, “Unprecedented ‘Architecture of Surveillance’ Created by Facebook and Google Poses Grave Human Rights Threat: Report.” Writer Andrea Germanos summarizes:

“With Facebook controlling not only its eponymous social media platform but also WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram, and Google parent company Alphabet in control of YouTube and the Android mobile operating system as well as the search engine, the companies ‘control the primary channels that people rely on to engage with the internet.’ In fact, the report continues, the two companies control ‘an architecture of surveillance that has no basis for comparison in human history.’ … The companies hoover up user data—as well as metadata like email recipients—and ‘they are using that data to infer and create new information about us,’ relying in part on artificial intelligence (AI).The report says that ‘as a default Google stores search history across all of an individual’s devices, information on every app and extension they use, and all of their YouTube history, while Facebook collects data about people even if they don’t have a Facebook account.’ Smart phones also offer the companies a ‘rich source of data,’ but the reach of surveillance doesn’t stop there.”

In fact, the reach now extends into homes via AI assistants like Alexa and devices connected to the internet of things. It also extends through public spaces courtesy of smart city implementations. All of this has crept upon us gradually and, largely, with the full cooperation of the subjects being surveilled (a.k.a. “users”), whether they fully understood what they were signing up for or not. The connections and conclusions algorithms can draw from all this information is mind-boggling even to someone who writes about data and AI for a living. See the article for a more in-depth discussion of the possibilities and repercussions.

Because the big tech companies are not going to stop these lucrative practices on their own, Amnesty International insists governments must step in. Companies must stop requiring users to surrender all rights to their data in order to use their services, for example, and the right to not be tracked must be enshrined into law. Transparency is also to be required, and companies mustn’t be allowed to lobby for weakened protections. Society has gone so far down the digital road that opting out of an online existence is simply not a workable option for most—that’s just not how it works anymore. But will it be possible to hold the big techs’ feet to the fire, or have they become too powerful?

Cynthia Murrell, December 18, 2019


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