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You'll Be Shocked at What 'Surveillance Valley' Knows About You

The most intimate details about a person’s life, packaged and sold over and over again to anyone willing to pay.

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Pam Dixon, executive director of the Privacy World Forum, agrees. Dixon frequently testifies on Capitol Hill to warn about the growing danger to privacy and civil liberties posed by big data and for-profit intelligence. In Congressional testimony back in 2009, Dixon called this growing mountain of data the “modern permanent record” and explained that users of these new intel capabilities will inevitably expand to include not just marketers and law enforcement, but insurance companies, employers, landlords, schools, parents, scammers and stalkers. “The information – like credit reports – will be used to make basic decisions about the ability of individual to travel, participate in the economy, find opportunities, find places to live, purchase goods and services, and make judgments about the importance, worthiness, and interests of individuals.”

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For the past year, Chairman John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV has been conducting a Senate Commerce Committee investigation of the data broker industry and how it affects consumers. The committee finished its investigation last week without reaching any real conclusions, but issued a report warning about the dangers posed by the for-profit intel industry and the need for further action by lawmakers. The report noted with concern that many of these firms failed to cooperate with the investigation into their business practices:

Data brokers operate behind a veil of secrecy. Three of the largest companies – Acxiom, Experian, and Epsilon – to date have been similarly secretive with the Committee with respect to their practices, refusing to identify the specific sources of their data or the customers who purchase it. … The refusal by several major data broker companies to provide the Committee complete responses regarding data sources and customers only reinforces the aura of secrecy surrounding the industry.

Rockefeller’s investigation was an important first step breaking open this secretive industry, but it was missing one notable element. Despite its focus on companies that feed on people’s personal data, the investigation did not include Google or the other big Surveillance Valley data munchers. And that’s too bad. Because if anything, the investigation into data brokers only highlighted the danger posed by the consumer-facing data companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Apple.

As intrusive as data brokers are, the level of detail in the information they compile on Americans pales to what can be vacuumed up by a company like Google. To compile their dossiers, traditional data brokers rely on mostly indirect intel: what people buy, where they vacation, what websites they visit. Google, on the other hand, has access to the raw uncensored contents of your inner life: personal emails, chats, the diary entries and medical records that we store in the cloud, our personal communication with doctors, lawyers, psychologists, friends. Data brokers know us through our spending habits. Google accesses the unfiltered details of our personal lives.

A recent study showed that Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to having their online activity tracked and analyzed. Seventy-three percent of people polled for the  Pew Internet & American Life Project  viewed the tracking of their search history as an invasion of privacy, while 68 percent were against targeted advertising, replying: “I don’t like having my online behavior tracked and analyzed.”

This isn’t news to companies like Google, which last year warned shareholders: “Privacy concerns relating to our technology could damage our reputation and deter current and potential users from using our products and services.”

Little wonder then that Google, and the rest of Surveillance Valley, is terrified that  the conversation about surveillance could soon broaden to include not only government espionage, but for-profit spying as well.

 
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