The supermarket is a panopticon

    My son’s now old enough to get ‘loyalty cards’ for supermarkets, coffee shops, and places to eat. He thinks this is great: free drinks! money off vouchers! What’s not to like? On a recent car journey, I explained why the only loyalty card I use is the one for the Co-op, and introduced him to the murky world of data brokers.

    In this article, Ian Bogost writes in The Atlantic about the extensive data collection by retailers to personalise marketing. This not only predicts but also influences consumer behaviour, raising ethical concerns about the erosion of privacy and democratic ideals. Bogost argues that this data-driven approach shifts the power balance, allowing companies to manipulate consumer preferences.

    In marketing, segmentation refers to the process of dividing customers into different groups, in order to make appeals to them based on shared characteristics. Though always somewhat artificial, segments used to correspond with real categories or identities—soccer moms, say, or gamers. Over decades, these segments have become ever smaller and more precise, and now retailers have enough data to create a segment just for you. And not even just for you, but for you right now: They customize marketing messages to unique individuals at distinct moments in time.

    You might be thinking, Who cares? If stores can offer the best deals on the most relevant products to me, then let them do it. But you don’t even know which products are relevant anymore. Customizing offerings and prices to ever-smaller segments of customers works; it causes people to alter their shopping behavior to the benefit of the stores and their data-greedy machines. It gives retailers the ability, in other words, to use your private information to separate you from your money. The reason to worry about the erosion of retail privacy isn’t only because stores might discover or reveal your secrets based on the data they collect about you. It’s that they can use that data to influence purchasing so effectively that they’re rewiring your desires.

    […]

    Ordinary people may not realize just how much offline information is collected and aggregated by the shopping industry rather than the tech industry. In fact, the two work together to erode our privacy effectively, discreetly, and thoroughly. Data gleaned from brick-and-mortar retailers get combined with data gleaned from online retailers to build ever-more detailed consumer profiles, with the intention of selling more things, online and in person—and to sell ads to sell those things, a process in which those data meet up with all the other information big Tech companies such as Google and Facebook have on you.“Retailing,” Joe Turow told me, “is the place where a lot of tech gets used and monetized.” The tech industry is largely the ad-tech industry. That makes a lot of data retail data. “There are a lot of companies doing horrendous things with your data, and people use them all the time, because they’re not on the public radar.” The supermarket, in other words, is a panopticon just the same as the social network.

    Source: You Should Worry About the Data Retailers Collect About You | The Atlantic

    Reality and the templated life

    This article reviews a book entitled A Web of Our Own Making by Antón Barba-Kay which reminded me a lot of an issue of Audrey Watters' Second Breakfast newsletter about the templated body.

    What does it mean for there to be multiple, constructed realities. When everyone has a smartwatch and is tracking everything, does that make their life both qualitatively and quantitatively different?

    Some of these observations, though apt, aren’t exactly new — that the possibility of tracking our steps for so-called health reasons distorts our relationship with a simple country walk, that the fundamentally data-driven nature of smartphone culture “is such as to translate larger human questions about how to live into technical puzzles that may be ‘problem-solved,’” that Twitter timelines and Instagram feeds have become a saccharine way of capturing our limited and precious attention by distracting us from the less immediately rewarding elements of being human.

    But the fusillade intensity with which Barba-Kay produces these inconvenient truths renders them impossible to ignore; from the details we start to perceive, little by little, the devil. As Barba-Kay writes, “digital technology is training us not simply to a new sense of what is real and really good, but to a new understanding of the contrasts within which we see that reality.” In other words, our awareness of what the virtual world cannot do has made us hungrier for those elements of reality from which we have not yet become alienated.

    If reality is changing, it is because, for better and for worse, our lives are increasingly determined by one specific vision of human ingenuity: a vision that valorizes those elements of human life we freely choose (or think we do) over those we once saw as given to us — our bodies, our families, our communities. Digital culture functions today as the Enlightenment cosmopolis once did: as a fantasy in which society reshapes itself along the lines of affinity.

    […]

    “Where once it was occasionally possible to opt out of ‘reality’ (by taking drugs, say),” Barba-Kay writes in the book’s perhaps most chilling line, “it is now increasingly necessary to think about how to opt in to it.” And we need to. It may be the most important decision we make in our lives.

    Source: How the Internet obeys you | The New Atlantis

    The rise of first-party online tracking

    In a startling example of the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage, the incumbent advertising giants are actually being strengthened by legislation aimed to curb their influence. Because, of course.

    For years, digital businesses relied on what is known as “third party” tracking. Companies such as Facebook and Google deployed technology to trail people everywhere they went online. If someone scrolled through Instagram and then browsed an online shoe store, marketers could use that information to target footwear ads to that person and reap a sale.

    [...]

    Now tracking has shifted to what is known as “first party” tracking. With this method, people are not being trailed from app to app or site to site. But companies are still gathering information on what people are doing on their specific site or app, with users’ consent. This kind of tracking, which companies have practiced for years, is growing.

    [...]

    The rise of this tracking has implications for digital advertising, which has depended on user data to know where to aim promotions. It tilts the playing field toward large digital ecosystems such as Google, Snap, TikTok, Amazon and Pinterest, which have millions of their own users and have amassed information on them. Smaller brands have to turn to those platforms if they want to advertise to find new customers.

    Source: How You’re Still Being Tracked on the Internet | The New York Times

    Tracking vs advertising

    We tend to use words to denote something right up to the time that term becomes untenable. Someone has to invent a better one. Take mobile phones, for example. They’re literally named after the least-used app on there, so we’re crying out for a different way to refer to them. Perhaps a better name would be ‘trackers’.

    These days, most people use mobile devices for social networking. These are available free at the point of access, funded by what we’re currently calling ‘advertising’. However, as this author notes, it’s nothing of the sort:

    What we have today is not advertising. The amount of personally identifiable information companies have about their customers is absolutely perverse. Some of the world’s largest companies are in the business of selling your personal information for use in advertising. This might sound innocuous but the tracking efforts of these companies are so accurate that many people believe that Facebook listens to their conversations to serve them relevant ads. Even if it’s true that the microphone is not used, the sum of all other data collected is still enough to show creepily relevant advertising.

    Unfortunately, the author doesn’t seem to have come to the conclusion yet that it’s the logic of capitalism that go us here. Instead, he just points out that people’s privacy is being abused.

    [P]eople now get most of their information from social networks yet these networks dictate the order in which content is served to the user. Google makes the worlds most popular mobile operating system and it’s purpose is drive the company’s bottom line (ad blocking is forbidden). “Smart” devices are everywhere and companies are jumping over each other to put more shit in your house so they can record your movements and sell the information to advertisers. This is all a blatant abuse of privacy that is completely toxic to society.
    Agreed, and it's easy to feel a little helpless against this onslaught. While it's great to have a list of things that users can do, if those things are difficult to implement and/or hard to understand, then it's an uphill battle.

    That being said, the three suggestions he makes are use

    To combat this trend, I have taken the following steps and I think others should join the movement:
    • Aggressively block all online advertisements
    • Don’t succumb to the “curated” feeds
    • Not every device needs to be “smart”
    I feel I'm already way ahead of the author in this regard:
    • Aggressively block all online advertisements
    • Don’t succumb to the “curated” feeds
      • I quit Facebook years ago, haven't got an Instagram account, and pretty much only post links to my own spaces on Twitter and LinkedIn.
    • Not every device needs to be “smart”
      • I don't really use my Philips Hue lights, and don't have an Amazon Alexa — or even the Google Assistant on my phone).
    It's not easy to stand up to Big Tech. The amount of money they pour into things make their 'innovations' seem inevitable. They can afford to make things cheap and frictionless so you get hooked.

    As an aside, it’s interesting to note that those that previously defended Apple as somehow ‘different’ on privacy, despite being the world’s most profitable company, are starting to backtrack.

    Source: Nicholas Rempel

    Every part of your digital life is being tracked, packaged up, and sold

    I’ve just installed Lumen Privacy Monitor on my Android smartphone after reading this blog post from Mozilla:

    New research co-authored by Mozilla Fellow Rishab Nithyanand explores just this: The opaque realm of third-party trackers and what they know about us. The research is titled “Apps, Trackers, Privacy, and Regulators: A Global Study of the Mobile Tracking Ecosystem,” and is authored by researchers at Stony Brook University, Data & Society, IMDEA Networks, ICSI, Princeton University, Corelight, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

    [...]

    In all, the team identified 2,121 trackers — 233 of which were previously unknown to popular advertising and tracking blacklists. These trackers collected personal data like Android IDs, phone numbers, device fingerprints, and MAC addresses.

    The link to the full report is linked to in the quotation above, but the high-level findings were:

    »Most trackers are owned by just a few parent organizations. The authors report that sixteen of the 20 most pervasive trackers are owned by Alphabet. Other parent organizations include Facebook and Verizon. “There is a clear oligopoly happening in the ecosystem,” Nithyanand says.

    » Mobile games and educational apps are the two categories with the highest number of trackers. Users of news and entertainment apps are also exposed to a wide range of trackers. In a separate paper co-authored by Vallina-Rodriguez, he explores the intersection of mobile tracking and apps for youngsters: “Is Our Children’s Apps Learning?

    » Cross-device tracking is widespread. The vast majority of mobile trackers are also active on the desktop web, allowing companies to link together personal data produced in both ecosystems. “Cross-platform tracking is already happening everywhere,” Nithyanand says. “Fifteen of the top 20 organizations active in the mobile advertising space also have a presence in the web advertising space.”

    We're finally getting the stage where a large portion of the population can't really ignore the fact that they're using free services in return for pervasive and always-on surveillance.

    Source: Mozilla: Read, Write, Participate