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The world is sick: mass surveillance

Reading time 7 min
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Information Security *Internet marketing *

How much does your privacy cost? Your medical information, your home address? How much is your browsing and search history? You might have never thought about that. You might have answered with an absurd number, or say that it’s priceless. Well, not for IT companies, apparently. You give out to them a huge amount of your personal data on a daily basis just for an opportunity to use their services that are truly vital, to be honest, in today’s world. This is the world we live in. Tech companies are colossal, ruthless, and unavoidable here. Welcome to the future! Is there an alternative to that? Is it a must to pay for our convenience with our data so they can put a price tag on it and sell it to the highest bidder? I’m ready to share my thoughts on that with you.

Privacy is a basic human right that is as important as any other right or freedom. It is mentioned in most countries' constitutions and international acts. However, our world is not an idealistic utopia and privacy abuse is commonplace. Corporations do it, authorities do it and even individuals do it sometimes. The reasons for that may vary and are never presented as evil, but the truth is different. Companies do it to offer us some relevant ads and governments will tell you they are fighting criminals and terrorists and that it's all about safety.

With great power comes great responsibility. There’s no doubt that large amounts of data nowadays provide unprecedented power. Let’s look at just some of the examples and decide if we want to pay this price for our safety or convenience.

The world was shocked by all the revelations Edward Snowden made back in 2013, but that was only the beginning…

Ad surveillance

An industry that wants most of your data, apparently, is marketing. Marketing is a never-ending race for efficiency in order to make more money. To maximize profits, companies need to sell more, but the demand is finite. That is where marketing enters the game. It inflates the demand and makes people buy things that they probably would never even think about buying otherwise. However, marketing comes with its own set of expenses which cut into profits.

Companies are looking for ways to maximize their profits by lowering marketing costs. In order to achieve this, they invented targeting. On the surface, it is a clever and somewhat harmless idea: run fewer ads by showing them only to people who they are relevant to. Looks like a win-win situation: people are not annoyed by the irrelevant ads and companies save money. However, micro-targeting emerged very soon…

Micro-targeting is a targeting approach, which aims at individual people instead of groups and communities. The downside is that it requires massive amounts of data about a potential customer: his or her age, gender, preferences, interests, habits, location, medical conditions, relationship status, financial situation, political views and much more. It is not an easy task to get all that data considering no one is willing to give it all out to complete strangers in order to receive relevant ads. That’s why companies decided to take it themselves without permission by invading one’s privacy and gathering the most data they can.

This invasion has no limits. Personal conversations? Done. Medical records? No problem. Search and view history? Whatever it takes to make profits.


Eventually, various companies end up with gigabytes worth of data about you, but there’s a problem. These companies have only managed to collect data they can reach: Uber has your location history and home address, Facebook got your political views and social connections covered, Google has your search history and Apple with their calendar and other apps are familiar with your schedule and habits, etc. Of course, these are all examples of valuable, in terms of micro-targeting, data about you. However, there’s not much these companies can do solely with their bit; it would be much more useful combined. That’s where data profiles appear.

Data profile is a kind of a personal record, a consolidated database that combines various data about an individual gathered from several sources. This way we can picture an individual according to data we know about him which comes in handy for micro-targeting purposes.

Profiles are usually created by big companies such as Google and Facebook. Because of how big and integral their services are, they’re able to collect all sorts of different data which can be later combined into profiles. Another source of profiles are data-broker companies, which buy data from a lot of smaller companies, package it into a ready-for-sale profile and sell it to anyone willing to pay. What is shocking to me is the fact that data-brokerage is a completely legal business in most of the countries, including the US.

Data leaks

Data leaks occur all the time. Sometimes they can be a result of a hacker attack, but a much more common reason for them is banal incompetence and lack of responsibility of the workers. They leave unprotected databases available for everyone on the internet. They store unencrypted account data or try making money selling their users’ data on the side. One of the biggest known leaked sets of data is “Collection #1” database discovered by the founder of Haveibeenpwned service Troy Hunt. He studied the database and what he found was truly frightening. The database contained approximately a billion unique data profiles, which means where were about one billion people’s data from all over the world. The profiles included emails and passwords, which could easily lead to the real name, phone number, banking accounts, home address, SSN, and other personal data for each of the victims. Further research has revealed, that the majority of the data found in “Collection #1” came from the leaks and several major legal data-brokers.

Authority abuse

I have already mentioned, how powerful data is. It is no surprise that it’s useful not only to the advertisers, but also to governments.

Democratic governments utilize it as an instrument to influence people’s opinions and get an insight into what is on their mind. That gives them an opportunity to influence the elections and increase the efficiency of their election campaigns as well as sink their opponents.

Authoritarian governments use surveillance to track down and prosecute the opposition, squelch the resistance, extend the censorship and gain even more power and control over their citizens. It is also common for them to prosecute opposition figures publicly: they want everyone to see their power and feel threatened, watched and unsafe just because of their political views. This is a tactic known as “self-censoring” – a way to make people think twice before saying, posting, or even thinking about something that is against the government’s official position, knowing, what the consequences for them might be. We have seen, how effective this strategy is many times over the course of history and sure will see again. This strategy is used right now in Russia and China. Its implementation was a major success for these governments.

This kind of unprecedented power and technology allows for a transition to what some political scientists refer to as a “Digital totalitarianism” – a never seen before form of polity, which strikingly resembles George Orwell’s "1984". The only difference is that it is now becoming the reality. Authoritarian governments, such as China, Russia, and North Korea are willing to do whatever it takes to gain this kind of power. And they have already made some progress on that path, having developed technology and practices, which they’re willing to export abroad.

Social and corporate rating

Historically, a lot of philosophers, politicians, writers and scientists have been trying to come up with a solution to a problem. This one problem was figuring out a way to make the world a better, safer and fairer place. However, one idea that has always been around is social score. We can even see it in some religions, such as Hinduism, referred to as karma. At first glance, it might look like a great solution to our problem with making the world a better place: why not just give everyone a karma, a score? One would gain points for acting in a way, that is admired by society: helping people, obeying the laws and doing other useful things, and lose those points for acting badly: violating the laws, etc. These points would determine if one should get the right to use public goods and services or be restricted from them, whether that means getting a good job and education or getting limited in the rights and excluded from the community. However, this is a terrible idea for a number of reasons.

Firstly, this kind of system is very dependent on the rules, but who gets to set them? An authoritarian government, that has zero concern about human rights and ethics of their policy? Or corporations, whose primary goal is maximizing profits? Maybe the diverse society, whose views are so commonly different, that they can’t even work out an agreement and end up starting wars? None of these options seem appropriate. However, these discriminatory systems are still getting put in place around the world.

For example, the Chinese system raises the score for those actively participating in pro-party meetings and reporting their friends, neighbors, colleagues and family members to the police. And there are already plenty of victims: people who can’t buy airplane and train tickets, can’t cross the borders and are restricted from using some of the public services. China goes as far as sending Muslims, who they consider dangerous, to concentration camps with the help of mass surveillance systems.

Furthermore, in order to work, this kind of system would require society to give up any privacy once and for all. How would we know if someone has done anything bad if it stays a secret? In China, they install facial recognition surveillance cameras everywhere, abuse the access to every possible database, make up ridiculous laws, and monitor social media platforms to get this system running. What will they come up with next? Order everyone to get a chip installed in their brain or wear some sort of mind-control helmet? We don’t know yet, but the possibilities are frightening.

Last, but not least, this system would never be ideally and perfectly secure. This leaves room for speculation and abuse, carried out by people, who operate it. Corruption is also likely to be in place, so we will most certainly see people bribing the operators in order to edit their own records for the better, or someone else’s, who they don’t like for the worse.

I think it is obvious now, that we should abandon the idea of using a social score once and for all, because we would most certainly lose from it rather than benefit as a society. However, there are governments and corporations who would benefit from these systems and I am pretty sure we will see them trying to implement those systems in the near future and we should never let them succeed. We have to stand up for our privacy, not only because it matters, but also because we now know. We know, that a thousand-mile journey to a dystopian future begins with a single step of letting companies show us relevant ads.

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