But here’s what you can do about it.
Remember back in 2015, before Google nixed their corporate motto “Don’t be evil”? Yeah, those were good days. They just kept putting out better and better products. Google launched the best search engine algorithm, the best browser, streamlined Chromebooks, Google Drive, a Youtube partner program, stable and safe DNS servers, and on and on. It felt like everyone was winning, especially the consumer.
The reality, however, is that Google was never quite as magnanimous as we all supposed. In pursuit of ad dollars, they had been on a downward trajectory for a long while, and they were dragging all their users with them. In 2019, I suspect all of us are painfully aware that Google and other tech giants no longer have the user’s best interests in mind. Let’s remember that, in fact, we are not their consumers; we’re the product.
We’ve reached a disastrous level of some twisted capitalist dystopia. When Karl Marx wrote that the capitalist class extracted the “excess value” from laborers in the form of profits, I don’t think even he could have foreseen how corporations would perniciously squeeze that value out of our fashion, our politics, our emotions, or even our sex lives. With Google Home or Alexa in your house, little is left to Google’s imagination about your hopes, dreams, or even kinky desires.
You know, in the year 2000, one of my uncles raised absolute tee-total-hell over the US government sending him a long-form census and asking things like “How often do you engage in sexual intercourse?” He raised hell again when we all learned of the NSA’s $1.5 billion data storage facility, codenamed Bumblehive, designed to store all the data of private citizens that the government had “overcollected.” But a private company like Google or Amazon wants to keep track of his love of AR-15s, bump stocks, and his budding interest in depleted uranium ammunition? Yeah, that’s fine; what’s the worst they could do to him with that information?
How did it get so bad? How did Americans, famous for telling the government they can stick their overreach where the sun don’t shine, decide that private corporations doing the same thing is just A-okay? Well, partly, understanding that development requires a longer discussion about our overzealous faith in the power of capitalist competition to keep exploiters in check, but that’s a bigger topic for another day.
In fact, most of us, when really pressed about it, acknowledge the severity of the problem, but it’s uncomfortable to think too much about the ways in which big tech corporations own us. So, instead, we live in denial or in this tenuous state of cognitive dissonance in which we assume the worst problems aren’t happening to us. After all, the worst that seems to come of it are some annoying ads for the same silk panties we bought last week. It’s annoying, right? How many times do they think I’ll buy that same pair of panties in a row? Couldn’t they at least wait a couple months before those ads pop up again?
Sure, at first it seems a little humorous, but due to the way Google tracks us across devices, soon the ads start showing up not only on your home devices, but at work, too. Now, suddenly the random coworker passing by wants to know why I’m getting ads for what appear to be bondage leotards. This data follows you, and I’m assuming you’d really rather it didn’t. Maybe sexual kinks aren’t your thing, but we all have some parts of ourselves we’d prefer Google not note and broadcast.
Oh, but that’s what incognito mode is for, you’ll argue. Is it? Google is still collecting the data, you know? Maybe for now it doesn’t show up in normal browsing, but you’re not at least a little worried they may change their terms of service or have yet another data breach? Then what? What comes of all your data you’ve been blithely handing over?
And what did we get out of the deal, exactly, for all our collective bovine compliance as tech companies have milked us for all we’re worth? Surprisingly little. Amazon’s convenient access to poorly-manufactured doodads, Facebook’s fake news and political propaganda, and the occasional cute animal video. It’s hardly worth the trade-off.
Recently, I spoke with a friend who said he likes to play a little game with his daughter where they see how quietly they can whisper and still have Alexa hear them. The answer frightened him. The game is like living in the world of A Quiet Place, except he willingly invited this monster into his home.
So why isn’t my friend more afraid? Well, he’s convinced that not all of these services have that much information on him. Plus, if he doesn’t want them to have his data, he can just choose not to use those services. Our ignorance about all things high tech is exactly what the companies are counting on. They don’t want us to know the ways in which they swap our data around. They package and sell our private information to one another just like creditors repackage and sell debt to collectors.
So my friend was predictably in complete denial when I told him those companies have “shadow profiles” on non-users based on the data of friends and other sources. He looked at me like I was spinning some sort of sci-fi dystopia conspiracy theory. Well, the sci-fi dystopia part was right, except it’s not waiting in some near or distant future; the technology already exists. In fact, even Apple, the company that’s been trying to sell its more privacy-oriented image, recently got into trouble for some of its apps sending all kinds of personal data straight to Facebook — things like weight, blood pressure, and whether women were menstruating at the time.
Okay, I know that was a lot of doom and gloom, but let’s not do what we always do and give up. We don’t have to assume that this is just “the way things are” and accept our lot. In fact, there are a number of measures we could take.
First, we need to acknowledge two truths: the problem is serious and pervasive, but we are not powerless.
For those who want to implement changes to save your personal data, let’s start small:
Brave is a privacy-oriented browser. It’s lightning fast and won’t hog your system resources like Chrome or other bogged down browsers.
DuckDuckGo, meanwhile, is a privacy-oriented search engine. It’s awesome in the ways Google used to be. It works great without collecting your personal data or inundating you with garbage ads.
For those of you who want to go even further, here’s a list of other options:
Cancel Amazon Prime.
This one is obvious. Look, you don’t need the two-day shipping. Hell, too often it’s not even two days anymore. Just ditch it; you’ll be fine. And Jeff Bezos doesn’t need more money.
Brick your Alexa and/or Google Home.
It’ll make a fancy piece of art.
We don’t value art enough in our society anymore. People even like to argue it has no purpose. Yeah, in this case, that’s the point. It beats Alexa’s current purpose of dastardly spying on your every word like some crappy B-movie Soviet villain.
Check out DNS.watch to change your DNS servers.
Stop feeding these companies, especially when they can use their DNS servers to track your web habits. One of my older acquaintances acts like changing DNS servers requires a degree in Defense against the Dark Arts, but then he goes on to explain how to jailbreak an Amazon Fire Stick to access any movies he wants. All I’m saying is this step ain’t that hard. Don’t be lazy. DNS.watch can show you how to simply switch to a DNS server that doesn’t track you.
Contact your Congressperson.
Wait, what? When did this get political? Well, you see, even the US Department of Defense relies on Amazon’s AWS cloud computing services. You know what would make them take seriously the notion of finding better options? Voters flooding their offices with requests to do so. Contact your representative today.
This is not an exhaustive list of options, but it gets us moving in the right direction. We have been compliant, we have been complicit. But we don’t have to stay that way. We are more than the sum of our interests compiled into ad revenue. There’s no reason to sit back and let this dystopia unfold when we can all do something about it from the comfort of our own homes.
Oh, and in a fun bit of irony, why don’t we turn the tools of the tech oppressors back on themselves? Share and retweet this article. Tell all your friends how they, too, can take back control of their own privacy.
And when we’re done clawing back these little bits of ourselves, then let’s take back even more.