James Dargan

@jimdargan

Big Tech’s User Data Violations

Fingers are being pointed at the big players in the technology sphere. Trust, that magical word, is collapsing. GDPR was a move seen to bring it back, but internet users aren’t stupid. And they’re beginning to now ask questions

Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash

Regulations

These days, privacy issues, especially online, take precedent with very much everybody. Recent scandals, the Facebook Cambridge Analytica uproar more than any other, has changed people’s perceptions of how their private data is being used by the big tech giants once they get it and, crucially, to whom it is being sent to afterward.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the European Union’s answer to data protection, has gone some way — in Europe at least — to turn the tide. However, there are still many countries where such regulations do not exist, or if they do, are very loosely implemented and controlled. The ‘Brussels effect’- a situation where EU regulations are followed in other countries outside the union — was seen in the United States when the state of California passed the California Consumer Privacy Act on 28 June 2018, taking effect from 1st January 2020, which is very similar to GDPR.

This gives rise to the question about the behemoths of the tech industry:

Should we trust them with our data?

Google has stated countless times in the past that its users’ privacy is a cornerstone of its business model, yet just a few days ago the company released its New Nest Privacy ‘promise’. The move, unfortunately, has made many in the industry a little afraid. Nest is a home automation service that Google claims ‘will explain how you can control and manage your data, such as providing you with the ability to access, review, and delete audio and video stored with your Google account at any time.’ In a recent interview, vice president of product at Google, Rishi Chandra, promised the company wouldn’t be raiding its customers’ data and just wants to “embrace Nest to make homes helpful — not just ‘smart. Adding, ‘privacy is for everyone, not just for the few.”

One of the ways Google is doing this is by giving users the choice of automatically deleting their data at three or eighteen months time frames. The company also stated it wants to give control to its users so they can surf the internet for anything on incognito mode, reducing the amount data available to Google.

The Leopard

These are all noble gestures, but Google has been collecting people’s data to near on two decades now and knows how to manipulate the system, it would seem. The old saying: A leopard never changes its spots, is relevant here. Doubters, naturally, would feel a little skeptical at Google’s declaration, but we should — at least until proven otherwise — partially believe their good intentions.

No matter what the angle or corporate philosophy is on the subject, on paper at least, all the big tech companies take the matter of customers’ privacy issues seriously. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s writes journalistic pieces in the national press advocating his stance on it all the time, while Apple, too, has laid its cards on the table, claiming users data privacy is of paramount importance to its corporate culture.

What one does, in theory, doesn’t always work in practice, unfortunately. This goes for any business model, but saliently now with tech dominating the business landscape. When most of these huge tech companies espouse this attitude toward data protection off of the back of them earning billions through the micro-segmented and segmented advertising of their business models, which only work for those that have a vast database of their users’ personal details, it’s a case of pure hypocrisy, one would gather.

Less than a decade ago, millions of us — myself included — couldn’t have cared less about Facebook’s, Amazon’s and Apple’s privacy terms and conditions when we bothered to look them up on their websites. And do you know why? Because we trusted them. We trusted them like we trust our banks (well most of them, anyway). We trusted them like we trust our parents. We trusted them because, in the western world at least, that’s what you did. Companies were there to serve us. To cover our every need.

‘The customer is king’.
‘The customer knows best’.

They were there to make us feel special, while — I know this is the pessimist talking in me — they took our hard-earned cash. But then things went belly up. They took advantage of that trust, big time: Facebook’s so-called interference in the US elections and the infamy already mentioned about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as well as allegations made by the Federal Trade Agreement (FTC) that the multimedia messaging app Snapchat ‘was deceiving users on its privacy and security measures’ made people sit up and take notice. These incidents were surely a blessing in disguise — awareness came out of them. These tech companies, almost immediately, had to take stock of their operations or risk their reputations as providers of great services being damaged forever.

For many companies, both the digital and those based on the more traditional structure, we don’t really have to worry about them mining our data or involving themselves in other ‘black ops’. But there are four, the GAAF (as I like to call them) of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook, that if they are not controlled, if they are not harnessed in, could — quite malignantly — take every piece of information from our lives and use it as they see fit.

So how much can we really — I mean, really, trust the four big tech giants? I think the time has come to take stock of the situation, because if we don’t, then we could be heading to a place many envisaged years ago in Orwellian terms, dark and sinister, where privacy doesn’t exist and where humanity has lost, quite sadly, its freedom to anonymity.

A Short Story

“So, Usual Suspects, stand in line, we want this police lineup to tell the truth,” the Sergeant says to the suspects.

The suspects are all in prison.

The Detective leads the Person into the room, the one who believes a crime has been committed against him.

Are you ready?” the Detective asks the Person.

“Yeah,” the Person asks.

“So there they are,” the Detective says, “suspect One, Two, Three and Four— Sundar Pichai of Google, Tim Cook, representing Apple, Jeff Bezos defending Amazon’s position and Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook, respectively… Do you want me to give you an overview of their crimes,” the Detective says to the Person, “to a greater or lesser degree?”

“Will it help?” the Person replies.

“It could. They’ve all done something wrong, I think. It’ll somehow balance out the information, making your verdict a little more objective.”

“Okay, why not.”

“Sergeant,” the Detective says to the Sergeant, “make sure they’re all facing the Person.”

“Okay, sir,” the Sergeant says as he squares Zuckerberg’s shoulders.

“And tell Mr Pichai to stop smiling — it aiyn’t funny.”

“Right away, sir,” the Sergeant replies before telling Pichai off.

“Okay, let’s start with Mr Pichai while we’re at it. Mr Pichai, step forward,” the Detective says. Pichai steps forward. “Well, Mr Pichai, I suppose you think you’re clean, that you haven’t done anything wrong, and I have to say your general attitude and policy towards your users has been good, hasn’t it? But, doesn’t most of your revenue come from SERPS?”

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

“What are SERPS?” the Person asks the Detective.

“It stands for ‘search engine results’,” the Detective answers. Pichai nods. “Yes, search engine results from managing segmented advertisers for users visiting pages. Third party sites, too. I hear you also manage a network of advertising where you auction off users’ profiles — now that’s not very nice, is it? Giving companies a user’s private info after they’ve visited a site. That is very ‘no-no’… And do you know what that leads to?” the Detective then asks the Person.

“No, I don’t,” the Person replies, clueless.

“A phenomenon called the ‘Persecution Effect.”

“And what the hell is that, Detective?”

“The persecution effect is the situation when once your searches are known by third parties — cough, cough Google — they will advertise to you in those specific niches.”

“I still don’t understand,” the Person says.

“Let’s say you’re looking for a hotel in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival. Once Google knows this they advertise — no, sorry — blitz you with offers for hotels in Edinburgh. Get what I’m saying now?

“Sort of, yeah. I think that’s happened to me numerous times. It pisses me off.”

“Google auctions your search results to the highest bidder. However, Google doesn’t hand over the personal details of its users to other third parties, do you Google?” the Detective then says.

Pichai just nods his head.

“So are you telling me the company is ethical?” the Person asks.

“Well I don’t think it’s suffered too many security scandals in all its history, have you Mr Pichai? Your attitude to antitrust legislation hasn’t been too bad, has it?”

Again Pichai says nothing. The Detective orders the Sergeant to stand Pichai back.

“Who next, sir?” the Sergeant then says.

“Give me Mr Cook,” the Detective answers. Cook steps forward. “Mr Cook, do you have anything to say for yourself?

Cook remains silent. The Sergeant nudges Cook but Cook remains passive.

“Maybe he’s got nothing to say?” the Person comments.

Photo by George Beridze on Unsplash

“Guilty, are you? I think your nose is clean, on the whole. You’ve never really been into advertising to your customers, have you? Apple’s more of a seller, not an advertiser — is that right?” Cook nods his head. “You don’t create profiles of your customers, so that’s good. There have been no scandals as far as my research can tell. And it’s a stroke of genius, how you’ve been able to, without spying on your customer base, become one of the richest companies in the world. Bravo.”

“That is admirable, Detective,” the Person says.

“I think people trust Apple, on the whole.” Cook smiles. “You can move back, Mr Cook… “Mr Bezos, come forward.” Bezos steps forward, ever so slightly.

Yes?” Bezos says smarmily, as confident as ever. The richest man in the world didn’t get to that position by being humble.

“How do you see your company’s position in regard to privacy laws and regulations?” the Detective asks Bezos.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

“In line with our nation’s laws and of those around the world, stupid.”

“None of the lip, please, Mr Bezos.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Let’s move on… Mr Bezos, as far as I can see Amazon has been in line with the area of users’ privacy. But I’m a little worried with your virtual assistant Alexa, not to mention other products in your range. As far as I can tell, from my research, you don’t really respect the privacy of your customers.”

Can I just say something?” Bezos then interjects.

“What is it, Mr Bezos?” the Detective asks.

“We do nothing of the kind.”

“That’s bullshit, Mr Bezos, and you know it — you monitor your customers’ shopping habits and the data you get is used to sell advertising slots to third parties which earns your company a vast amount of money, doesn’t it, Mr Bezos?”

“If you say so, Detective,” Bezos answers.

“You will have to change your policy. Guilty as charged.”

“Well, thank you, Detective.”

“You can step back, Mr Bezos… Mr Zuckerberg, take a few steps forward,” the Detective says.

Unlike Pichai, Cook and Bezos — who are all dressed in smart suits — Zuckerberg has toned down the mood with a t-shirt and jeans. Not a good first impression.

“Well, well, well, Mr Zuckerberg, we meet at last,” the Detective begins, “and what have you got to say for yourself?”

Photo by Alex Haney on Unsplash

“I didn’t do anything. Facebook is here to open people’s minds, to connect them, to make the world one.”

“Bullshit, Mr Zuckerberg… Do you know what kind of a rat this man is in front of you?” the Detective says to the Person.

“I’ve heard some rumours, but not really, no,” the Person answers, shrugging his shoulders.

“And do you want to know?”

“Yes, please.”

“This man’s business model and his company’s antics have gone through scandal after scandal.” The Detective turns to the Person. “Mr Zuckerberg here cheated some friends in college out of their idea, didn’t you, Mr Zuckerberg?”

“That’s a lie,” Zuckerberg answers, the smile on his face as false as ice in the Sahara.

“Listen to this then: you’re a cheat, a big cheat, copying the Winklevoss brothers’ idea for Facebook, isn’t that true, Mr Zuckerberg?”

“It’s not. And the Winklevoss twins have never been my friends. They can go to hell.”

“The brothers think you did. They can even prove it.”

“Tell them to take me to court, then,” Zuckerberg says, anger in his eyes now though his facial expression is still neutral.

“Your business model is unethical. Look at all the scandals you’ve been involved in. Your dirty tricks are going to get into a lot of trouble… What is it I hear some governments call you… oh, yes, that’s it… a digital gangster. Mr Zuckerberg, your philanthropic work notwithstanding, you and your gargantuan company cannot — I repeat — cannot be trusted.”

“If you say so,” Zuckerberg answers as Pichai, Cook and Bezos look on wide-eyed with shock.

“To add, your security practices are a running joke: what do you do? Steal your customers’ data at a whim while making deals with third parties for that secret information.”

“I won’t put it with this, I swear.”

“I’m afraid you have to, Mr Zuckerbrg… Are you taking all this in, sir?” the Detective asks the Person.

“Yes, I am. And I’m shocked to say the least.”

“You have no credibility at all, Mr Zuckerberg. You disgust me,” the Detective goes on.

“That’s your opinion,” says Zuckerberg.

“You have no shame of the constant and terminal exploitation of your users’ data?”

“No comment.”

Another policeman enters the room.

“Detective,” the Policeman says, “I’ve got a note for you.”

The Policeman hands the note over and leaves the room. The Detective opens the folded piece of paper — on it, typewritten in Courier font, is a short paragraph.

“Oh, well,” the Detective says with a chuckle, “this is a stroke of luck — sir,” he then adds, “you must listen to this — ”

Can I go now?” Zuckerberg interrupts with a sigh.

“No, stay there,” the Detective says. “Listen to this, Mr Zuckerberg — your one-time friend, Chris Hughes, thinks Facebook should be broken up… He goes on to say:

‘Mark’s power is unprecedented and un-American…

Anything to say to that, Mr Zuckerberg, any way to counter that dagger in the chest?”

“No,” Zuckerberg replies as Bezos laughs — ‘the break up of Facebook’ would really make him happy.

“All your friends have abandoned ship. You’re on your own now, digital gangster. Better own up and be done with it, I’d say.”

“Sergeant, move Mr Zuckerberg back into position,” the Detective says to the Sergeant. The Sergeant pulls Zuckerberg back in line with the other three. “So, sir, who’s the guiltiest of privacy issues and treating their users like a big bag of shit?”

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?”

“Tell me?”

“Facebook…”

Final Thoughts

This, of course, was just a story, but it goes some way in telling us about how guilty many companies are in regard to privacy issues and how they use the data mined from their user databases for their own wealth creation. Those cynical people in the room would say it’s clear, that’s it’s been going on since the very beginning; others, individuals with a penchant for trusting these companies, could take a very different view.

Whatever the standpoint, however, in the end, we all have our own prejudices and opinions to how these companies operate. And well into the future (if they are still around by then), they will continue to operate while trying to get away with as much as possible.

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