Inquiring Minds Want to Know (Too Much)

20 Sep, 2013

It’s time to tell Big Brother Zuckerberg, ‘Do Not Track.’ While Edward Snowden highlighted the lengths to which Washington (and maybe Ottawa) has violated our privacy, Silicon Valley has been doing the same for years. Major technology companies have built elaborate tracking and analysis systems into their products, violating laws and disregarding ethical considerations in the process. And now, they’re working hard to stop a proposed web standard, ‘Do Not Track’, that would allow Internet browsers to opt out of those databases for good.

You think the NSA knows a lot about you? Think again. Some of the biggest stocks in tech, including Facebook and Google, predicate their business model on the fact that the more detailed information about consumers they provide to advertisers, the more profit they make. Every ‘Like’, search, website visit, and much more, files into repositories of users’ digital lives. Unlike the NSA, Silicon Valley spies on everyone, not just suspected terrorists. Even if a person rarely logs into a social network or enters a search, modern technology can follow and monitor their actions between websites. With databases of information unparalleled in size, it isn’t surprising that the U.S. sought out the tech industry to achieve its surveillance objectives. What is surprising is just how easily those companies complied.

Silicon Valley’s ethical transgressions far exceed giving information to advertisers. While many companies (like Google, Apple, and Microsoft) were secretly forced to give in to the spy agency’s requests, all (except for Twitter) worked with the NSA to build secret databases to hand over information more easily. Microsoft allegedly even allowed the US to hack into Skype chats and Outlook emails that the company assured users were secure. Silicon Valley may pin its pitiful defense of its users’ privacy on legal obligation, but tech companies also break the law when it serves them.

Tech companies have been caught making major invasions of privacy, yet they have been able to avoid public scrutiny even when alleged to have broken laws. In 2010, Google admitted to stealing information from the computer networks of houses its cars were mapping for Google Maps. The search engine’s Wi-Fi peeping ensnared confidential data and passwords from victims. Likewise, Apple was found to log location information from the public’s iPhones without notifying its users. In response, Apple silenced criticism by removing the alleged ‘bug’ in a software update. For both scandals, the public fallout was significantly shorter lived than for the NSA, and repercussions amounted to a few hushed court cases. If tech companies continue to get only a slap on the wrist for ‘accidents’ like these, what will they do next?

Do Not Track’s proponents seek a solution to Internet surveillance. Do Not Track is an anticipated option in web browsers, initiated by the US Federal Trade Commission, which prevents websites from collecting personal information not deemed necessary to the user. In other words, a website may not keep information on a visitor unless the visitor explicitly allows it. In an age where phones are listening for their owner’s voice 24/7, Do Not Track reinforces the notion that users have the right to online privacy.

However, Do Not Track stands at an impasse, stalled by considerable lobbying from the advertising industry. Negotiations for the standard between advertisers and privacy activists have been in deadlock for over two years. Advocates on the side of privacy are losing their resolve and resigning, but it’s hard to blame them. After all, industry lobbyists are well funded and can afford to stall this as long as possible. As a result, negotiations for Do Not Track will continue to fail without the support of the general public. Only with petitions, noise, and perhaps even anger, can Do Not Track be propelled from dream to reality.

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