Spooky: Trading privacy for convenience
Google knows everything a user buys online, the places he visits, the apps he uses and even the porn he sees – even if he does it in incognito mode.
Amazon knows every request to the platform, its address and the conversations he has with Alexa. And Facebook collects his publications and likes, the times it clicks on an advertisement and, sometimes, even the detailed history of calls and SMS.
Technological giants greatly facilitate the lives of their users, but in exchange, they collect a huge amount of data.
In a context in which thousands of companies try to get to know users better, safeguarding privacy has become a difficult challenge.
What guarantees do we have as users that what is private remains private?
Anonymity no longer depends on someone finding out our name or phone number. It is becoming easier to identify ourselves individually from what we do or what we are.
A recent study published by Nature Communication reveals that it is possible to identify someone with a multitude of variables if the number of data is sufficient, for example, with the use of social networks, genetic data, location, credit card spending, writing style or browsing history.
Having a private life in the digital world is increasingly difficult, if not impossible.
Since we connected, our operators maintain the connection data, use free systems and accept those traces. There are cookies, voice assistants, video surveillance cameras.
On many occasions, it is the user himself who contributes a greater wealth of data by publishing everything he does on social networks and participating in challenges such as the 10-year challenge or downloading applications such as FaceApp.
They still spy, even if permissions are denied
To prevent applications from accessing any information, the user can give or deny a series of permissions.
For example, to access your location, contacts or files stored on the phone. But even when you explicitly deny permission, thousands of applications have found a way to continue collecting private information.
This is revealed by a recent investigation by a team of cybersecurity experts, whose findings potentially affect hundreds of millions of users.
Among the applications that would carry out these practices, there are some very popular ones such as the Samsung browser or the Chinese search engine Baidu.
It is not only about the data that apps access and collect, but about its subsequent use. The user is not aware on many occasions of how companies treat such information.
This happens, for example, with voice assistants. The number of such devices in use worldwide does not stop growing.
Statista expects that in 2019 there will be a total of 3,250 million virtual assistants. It expects that 5,110 million will be available in 2021 and 8,000 million in 2023.
Technological giants have not been transparent in explaining how conversations between a user and the device are used.
Different media have revealed in recent months that Amazon, Apple and Google have employees who listen daily to random conversations that users have with “in order to improve the system”.
The three companies have only recognized performing these practices once the information is published. Neither Samsung nor Microsoft have yet explained if they do too.
“Somehow this type of practice damages the reputation of the companies because it can produce rejection knowing that they can spy on us, so that they make up the need to collect all the data that is possible, the more the better, without respecting the minimization principle of the data, with the promise of improving the quality of services,” says Ramón Ynat, director of compliance at Entelgy Innotec Security.
First, Google said that the listening was only done when a user previously agreed to “participate in an experimentation group to improve systems.”
In early July, Google recognized after a leak, that it had workers who listened to 0.2% of user conversations with their virtual assistant.
The Mountain View company then published a blog post in which made no reference to these supposed “experimentation groups.”
Google, Facebook and Apple insist that they only listen to an extremely small number of interactions and that, in no case, recordings are associated with a specific user. But some Amazon employees can access the exact address of the users, according to Bloomberg.
I find it chilling to imagine that someone can access the privacy of my home and listen to the conversations that belong to my personal space.
It would be like living exposed, something like living in a transparent, glass house.
Technological giants ensure that virtual assistants are only activated when they issue a specific command. But there have been several cases in which they have stored private conversations.
Transcribers from these companies claim to have heard people having sex, talking about private details such as names or bank details or saying phrases like the following: “I’m sorry, honey. I can’t talk anymore because my partner is already home.”
Experts urge users to ask themselves the following question: “What would happen if our conversations came to light? Would we be able to overcome it?
Sadly we are approaching a world in which we have to assume that any intimacy can be disclosed with the impact that it has.
Some hackers published the personal information of more than 30 million infidels registered on a platform. The leaking of information caused a wave of blackmails to users and some even resulted in suicides.
We are reaching the point of no return in the world of the big brother.
But it is not necessary to hide great secrets to give importance to privacy.
In fact, experts point out the risk that companies make a precise profiling of each user taking into account conversations he has with a virtual assistant to the use of different applications.
When a company has known our detailed agendas for years, it knows who our acquaintances and friends are, and the friends of our friends.
Big Tech companies also know our preferences, including sexual practices, political ideology and religious beliefs. And even on what and how we spend our money. In short, they get to know more about us than ourselves.
This leads the user not only to give up his privacy but also control of his own life. In this way, companies can eventually sell you an idea, a thought or even a political ideology.
Facebook analyzed data from more than six million Australian and New Zealand teenagers to determine their mood and provide advertisers with information on the times they felt most vulnerable, according to a company document leaked in Australia leaked in 2017. In addition, Mark Zuckerberg’s company played an important role in Brexit and the last US presidential election.
In the end, it is still a form of control or manipulation with the intention of interfering with our decisions, in our freedom to choose freely, without interference or external controls. Our data is monetized and sold to the highest bidder.
Despite the outbreak of different scandals, technology giants ensure that privacy is one of their pillars and that the user must be able to control at all times what data is transferred to the company.
To do this, they offer you the possibility to consult and delete the information they store about you. But, sometimes, this option does not guarantee the total elimination of the content.
For example, Amazon’s Vice President of Public Policy, Brian Huseman, acknowledged in a letter sent to US Senator Christopher Coons that the company keeps indefinitely transcripts of conversations that users have with Alexa even after they have been removed them.
These types of practices have led some users to stop using social networks such as Facebook or any application developed by Google.
But today it can be difficult to perform daily tasks without these companies. Journalist Kashmir Hill spent a week without Google as part of an experiment to live without the giants of technology.
During that time, he could not search for information on Google, access the calendar to consult his agenda or write his texts in Google Docs.
To his surprise, he was not able to use applications such as Uber or Lyft, since both depend on Google Maps, or Spotify, since his music was hosted on Google Cloud.
Ideally, according to experts, users should be aware of the risks and play an active role in safeguarding their privacy as much as possible.
They stress that users should worry about what they install on their smartphones and control the permissions they give to apps. They also advise that if an application is uninstalled, its account will also be deleted:
It does not do any good to uninstall an application if it can still process your data.
In short, you have to worry a little more about privacy and intimacy without being tempted to say, “I have nothing to hide”.
We cannot lose fundamental rights that have cost us so much to gain by a little comfort in our life or simply by feeding our ego in social networks.
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Luis R. Miranda is an award-winning journalist and the founder & editor of The Real Agenda News. His career spans over 23 years in every form of news media. He writes about environmentalism, education, technology, science, health, immigration and other current affairs. Luis has worked as on-air talent, news reporter, television producer, and news writer.