Dinner time! Bob’s favourite dish! “How was your day?” Betty asks to open conversation. Halfway through dinner, after Betty telling Bob he should visit the doctor instead of searching symptoms online, she tells she witnessed an accident on Westfield Road earlier that day, but Bob can’t recall that location. “Let me show you.” She gets her Samsung Galaxy S6, opens Google Maps and zooms in. “Right there!”
Later that night, Bob remembers to contact Dave to hang out. Unlike his beloved, he owns an Apple iPhone. “Siri, launch WhatsApp.” Siri obeys. “Hey Dave, we should check out The Minions on Netflix this weekend,” Bob writes.
A fraction of a seemingly ordinary day. These are devices, tools and services you and I use daily, and many of these make our lives easier or amuse us. Under the hood however, this seemingly private moment is more public than we may think.
First, information was shared through direct interaction; Bob searching symptoms online. If he used Tor and a Virtual Private Network, his symptoms may have remained somewhat private. But who does that for semi-regular browsing anyway? He used the search box in Safari, on OS X Yosemite. When entering data in that search box, the query is first sent to Apple, and then to Google to actually perform the search. Google can use it later in advertisement on any site that displays Google Ads. Apple and Google now know about Bob’s symptoms, which could vary from a common cold to STD.
The second case of sharing information was done by Betty, although not deliberately. She looked up Westfield Road on Google Maps. Although that’s not very sensitive information, it does indicate a certain interest. If she had GPS tracking on all day, it’s very likely Google already knows she was there earlier that day, since she has a device running Android. Other than Google, many other apps may have gathered this information as well.
The third case is where Bob contacts Dave through WhatsApp — a private chatting application. Private, huh? WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, which is mostly financed through advertisements. It’s likely either Bob or Dave may have come across a seemingly coincidental advertisement on Facebook, advertising Minions on Netflix.
But it get’s worse! Bob’s Samsung Smart TV records audio, even when turned off, and sends recordings to a third party for voice recognition. Bob’s and Betty’s smart heating system knows when they go to work, when they get home, when they go on holiday. Everything that is somehow connected to the internet is a firehose leaking private information.
Data mining, because that’s what this is, happens 24/7. We’re afraid of having private information leaked to hackers. We’re afraid of having private information leaked to the government intelligence, like NSA. But many of us leak information to commercial companies, that sooner or later are victim of a hack or have to answer to government intelligence, like the NSA. Sometimes we’re not even aware of doing so.
So, should we plug out of the internet? Have ourselves return to fighting each other with sticks and stones? Well, that certainly is one option. But, we could also legally force companies to make every feature that shares information opt-in instead of opt-out. Disabled by default, and when we try to access that feature, a little modal appears, saying: “This feature shares information with third parties, which you probably don’t want. Do you consent?”
No, I fucking don’t.