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Your Privacy Is Someone Else's Profit

Private companies have more control over our personal information than we do, as the new book, <i>iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era</i>, explains.
 
 
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On the 24th of October, presidential candidate Barack Obama, D-Ill., added his name to the list of senators, led by Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who oppose immunity for telecoms who have participated in domestic spying. As this debate heats up in the Senate and in the papers, Americans are confronted with an unsettling reality: Private companies have more control over our personal information than we do.

While the interactive revolution was touted as the democratization of information, it has also greatly accelerated the consolidation of power in the hands of both government and industry. Whether we're talking on our cell phones, paying bills online, or doing research for a paper, our communications now leave an elaborate footprint. It is these footprints that advertisers are so hungrily compiling, creating massive databases to track our daily movements in order to better pitch us products down the line -- or to share with the government.

Mark Andrejevic's new book iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era explores the implications of the disenfranchising of Americans in the interactive era. Who owns our information? How is it shared? How will advertisers and the government use our information in the future? Andrejevic sat down with AlterNet to share what he's learned through his research.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: Throughout the book, you argue that interactivity does not necessarily mean democratization. Can you explain?

Mark Andrejevic: Living through the '90s, there was this euphoric set of predictions about the empowering and democratizing capacity of the new medium. I read that against what the current political and economic situation looks like today. We live in a society that has become increasingly economically stratified in the past decade and also increasingly unresponsive democratically.

Yet we're still bombarded with the type of claims that Time magazine made when it named "us" as the person of the year. Time says that the current situation is about the many wresting power from the few and how this is going to transform the world. The book documents a whole barrage of these types of claims. Very often they're made in the abstract: "Interactivity will have the power to challenge entrenched monopolies and overturn elitist hierarchies," "It allows the public to seize the means of production." I'm not out to debunk the claim that this potential exists. What concerns me is the way in which the celebration of the potential so quickly slides into a claim that this potential is being actualized. What we have to do is find a way to distinguish between the promise that resides in these interactive technologies and their actual application. And then to be able to distinguish between which applications live up to that promise and which don't.

OR: What are some of the technologies that fail to live up to the promise?

MA: TiVo is basically a market research technology. The people who came up with the idea thought they'd get between viewers and broadcasters. This is a quantum leap in the ability to measure the audience, facilitated by these interactive technologies. When TiVo came out, the New York Times said that against the background of TV, the history of commercial broadcasting looks like a Stalinist plot erected from above. The implication was that we were now overcoming the planned economy of mass society and realizing the true emancipating potential of this interactive society.

Similarly, Wired magazine has recently been making a big deal out of cloud computing. This is the movement of data, resources and even software onto the servers of companies like Google and Yahoo that makes it possible for us to access our data wherever we go. The way Wired magazine puts it, our information and our data resources are moving into the "Internet cloud." That makes it sound so airy and free, when, in reality, what's happening is our information is moving into these huge server farms that are privately owned and controlled. They're not cloudy; they're these huge constructions that Google is building along the Columbia River Gorge. Once we put our data there, it can be sorted, aggregated, mined. It becomes a huge treasure trove of information that these commercial organizations have control over and that very likely, the government is going to become increasingly interested in.

OR: You write that many of these technologies create a situation in which we the watchers are in turn being watched. The history of this has its roots in advertisers seeking information on the audience. One particularly poignant example of this was your discussion of Archibald Crossley, father of the ratings system, rooting through peoples' garbage to find out what people were consuming.

MA: We have this history of commercial broadcasting that from its very inception relied on gathering information about the audience. The problem of the audience actually emerges with the advent of broadcasting. They come up with radio technology wonderfully efficient to get information out there. Because you don't have to print copies of newspapers and circulate them, you can just throw the information out in the air, the audience disappears. The history of the ratings industry is trying to make that audience reappear in palpable ways.

It's the interactive capability of digital technologies that really promises to deliver. Every transaction can be measured. Every act of media consumption can be located in time and space. Various ratings industry are working on the anytime, anywhere media monitoring device. They want to find a way to measure every exposure to commercial media. The device is designed to detect encoded signals in audio frequencies. So if you go near a TV or radio, any kind of audio broadcasting, it will detect that you've been exposed to that message. Further extensions include GPS incorporation to see which billboards you might have passed. Or maybe even down the road radio frequency ID detectors (RFID) that would allow measurement of exposure to advertising with embedded RFID chips.

If you have some kind of a portable network device that can be identified as connected with a particular individual and all of one's media exposure flows through that device, listening to podcasts or streaming radio, watching downloaded video, reading online magazines and newspapers, it almost seems like the convergent solution to the problem that's created for media monitoring by the advent of convergence.

OR: You actually argue that the freedom consumers experienced earlier in the inception of interactive technologies has become more restrictive. You write, "The heady Napster era of free and uncontrolled downloading is reliant, paradoxically, on a relative lack of interactivity and the resulting anonymity afforded users." What changed?

MA: People are much more wary of file sharing than they once were because they understand that the things that they do online leave a trace. In some cases, it's led to legal action. The ability to monitor what people do online is only increasing. The more interactivity becomes ubiquitous, the end point is that all of the things that we do online leave a trail. To the extent that that information can be gathered and acted upon, the certainty that any violation of any intellectual property rules will be followed by some kind of repercussion will increase.

I was in Australia a couple of summers ago, and I had with me a DVD that had a proprietary format, high-definition version of the movie I wanted to watch. So I popped it into my laptop, and thought I would watch the high-definition version. When I popped it in, I got a little prompt that said, "You need to register online in order to watch this. So I went online and registered, and then I got a message that said, "Sorry, you're in Australia and this is not licensed to play in Australia." This wasn't a coding problem. I had a U.S. laptop and a U.S. DVD. It was a way in which region coding was enforced by the network itself. It's a small detail, but what it means to me is that when it comes to the type of control that the RIAA and the motion picture industry are interested in enforcing, interactivity is only a threat if it's not ubiquitous. Interactivity can facilitate illegal file sharing, but when interactivity become ubiquitous, when our media players are networked, it's going to be much easier to monitor and control how we use the data that we both store on our machines and that we store remotely in these servers that we access.

OR: Throughout the book, you use examples that make it very clear that while a technology is designed to appeal to a consumer, there are often tradeoffs. One that struck me was Google's e-mail service, Gmail. A lot of people use it, largely out of necessity because it enables a very high storage capacity. What is the trade-off?

MA: The trade-off is convenience for a loss of control over information about you -- even the words that you've written. Gmail was a paradigm-shifting moment. Instead of rationing out free e-mail in little tiny bits to entice people to pay for more, they could throw open their servers and use the information that's stored there. Google realized that they could make peoples' productivity their own.

I don't want to deny that there's a wonderful convenience to Gmail. But once we write our messages and send them, Gmail has records of those and they can keep them indefinitely. They've said that at some point, they're going to purge them from their frontline servers. It's not clear to me whether they plan ever to get rid of them on their online or backline storage servers. Google is going to have increasingly large amounts of information about the population. At the very least, someday it's going to be a treasure trove of information for some sociologist documenting the early 21st century.

It's not entirely clear what type of rights Google has over that information. They obviously can't publish an epistolary novel based on our letters. That would seem to be an infringement of our copyright, but they do have the right to go through and search for keywords that they can use for customizing advertising. As far as I can tell, there's nothing to stop them from creating sophisticated databases that identify trends and correlations in the types of things that people write.

OR: A lot of this information is used to create targeted ads. It's the Amazon books notion of, "If you like this book, you might like our recommendation." What's wrong with having ads customized for us? Don't we want to have products that are better suited to us?

MA: It's important to point out that there is a blurring line between commercial and government surveillance. We live in a world in which the government wants increasing access to the communications of Americans. They want it with less accountability and more monitoring power than ever before. They've made this interest quite clear in approaching the telecommunications companies and companies like Google and Yahoo to get information about Americans.

The type of legislation that is currently being considered and debated has to do with granting the state more power to access information about Americans. There's an economic incentive to gather this information, but once it's gathered, the state has the incentive to use that information for other purposes.

OR: What's the downside of customized advertising?

MA: I think there's a point at which we're going to start to be concerned about the level of customization even as it's associated with advertising itself. I don't want to watch ads for stuff that I'm not interested in, but I'm going to get a little creeped out when ads reach a level of customization that evinces familiarity with my personal life. Imagine a world where advertising has the capacity to know things like, "Hey, saw you were shopping for Rogaine, and you just joined an online dating site. Having trouble getting dates? Worried that it might be because you're bald? Here's our latest remedy." There's the potential for advertising based on your medical history, not because those records become public, but because we shed that information online when we go to websites that are devoted to particular medical conditions. What if it starts to target consumers based on some interaction of details of their medical lives and their love lives or the intersection of those two?

Maybe advertisers will respect that limit, but nothing historically suggests to me that they have any respect other than what works. I have a concern about what types of insecurities, fears and fantasies advertisers will be able to tap into and manipulate when they have much more information about us than we have about them. That's a certain type of power in terms of information asymmetries. When advertisers know much more about us than we know about what they've gathered about us and what they're doing with that information, they may come to have a certain type of control over us.

OR: Part of that is ostensibly the lack of laws surrounding the ownership of our information. Companies essentially own our information and can sell it and can change the terms of what they initially said they would do or not do with the information.

MA: A lot of this information is being gathered speculatively. There's an understanding that in an information society, information is a valuable asset. I think in many cases companies understand that they can use the information for customizing ads, and down the road they'll have even more information and what they have now may become even more valuable.

I don't dispute the convenience of customized advertising. I think all of us, to the extent that we're going to be barraged with advertising, would prefer it to have some relevance. Of course that takes as given a world in which we're constantly barraged with advertising. That may be something that we may want to challenge the whole model of having advertising be the dominant way that our communication and information is provided to us.

OR: Having just traveled and been in a number of airports, it seems like the public presence of advertising is getting exponentially worse. Every ticket, every surface you could imagine is covered with an advertisement. And it's usually thematic. So, you're going up the escalator, and it's 30 ads for a single phone. You can't choose to not look at it.

MA: It's in the men's rooms over the urinals. The other day I was flipping through the channels, and in a women's volleyball game, the players had temporary tattoos of sponsors on their arms. There are two components to that. One is the component of living in a world where the whole landscape is commodified, but the other is how that shapes the type of media that we consume. Advertising has a huge shaping influence on some media. In particular I'm thinking of TV news. They have to create formats and programming that take their primary goal as creating a forum for advertising that will be desirable to advertisers. Drawing viewers is part of that, but there are different ways to draw viewers. News media, especially television news, have done such a horrible job of informing viewers. Just think of the buildup to the war in Iraq.

Commercialization doesn't just clutter our environment, it also shapes the type of information that's available to us. Commercial supported media gives us particular types of content. In certain ways it avoids content that it thinks might not create the kind of environment that's conducive to advertising. We get lots of news as entertainment. Tons of staged conflicts between screamers on the left and screamers on the right because it's a good circus sideshow and it's cheap.

OR: You write that WalMart claims to have one of the largest commercial databases of consumer information. There's WalMart, Gmail, basically consumers go physically or virtually, our information is being stored. You mentioned a relative works at these data collection companies. She couldn't show you your file, but she gave you access to hers. What was in it?

MA: She showed me the most basic version of hers. It was 20 pages. It was mainly public records and correlations of public records. Not only did it have information that they were able to collect about when she registered her car because she left information about where she lived at the time, but there was also an ongoing chain. When you find out where she lived during a particular time period, you can cross-reference that with all the other people who have listed that same address at the time. This kind of ongoing series of data is what companies call nonobvious relationship awareness. You could trace all the people that she's had as roommates and all the people that they've had as roommates and so on. As far as I remember from that record, they stopped with all the people who had lived at the same places that she lived. She didn't send me the legal stuff. That company does have access to that so all of the legal background check, any crimes that you may have committed or legal cases that you've been involved in. There's a huge trove of public record stuff. What these companies do is collect that, pay for it, aggregate it and connect it to private and propriety databases that they're also able to purchase or collect.

OR: It's so asymmetric, because while we're giving bits and pieces of information as we go about our lives, there are these companies that are basically compiling all of that and creating a very elaborate ID.

MA: Infrastructure makes a difference. One of the other false truisms of the information society is that ownership of resources doesn't really matter anymore, because it's all about intellectual production and creation. Owning databases and owning the processing power to sort through those databases, owning the servers that are able to store all of that information, gives one a certain type of control over information that the rest of us don't have.

There's this huge infrastructure investment that's taking place just in data storage. I just imagine these huge factories that don't contain people but contain information about people. We generated that information and it's being put to work. It's not just about privacy; it's about productivity. We're becoming so incredibly productive in terms of the information that we throw off as we go about our lives. but we don't have any control over what it is that we've produced. The control over what we've produced is turned over to the companies that are able to store and use the information. That again feels to me like a power issue.

OR: How do social networking sites like Facebook fit into this picture?

MA: Both Facebook and MySpace recently announced that they see their social networking sites as a productive factory of marketing information. If you think back to that image of Crossley sorting through peoples' trash, this is a quantum leap. You're not only taking the castoffs of peoples' consumption processes, but you're tapping into their communications, their fantasies, their dreams. All of the social connections that they build with one another become this mine of information to be used for instrumental applications for, in this case, commercial purposes. Those sites are basically factories of personal and aggregate information about very desirable demographic. That's why Rupert Murdoch is willing to pay so much for a site like this.

OR: While social networking sites are indirect ways that advertisers tap our information, there are more direct ways. You write about different campaigns to come up with a jingle or to customize your own product.

MA: I'm struck by the military language that advertisers use. They talk about target marketing, and if you look in trade magazines, very often they'll use the visual metaphor of a target. "You've got to hit the audience on the target." Very often what we're engaged in as we participate in these user-generated content campaigns is targeting ourselves. A lot of what gets described as participation is participating in helping marketers in shooting at us more effectively. That's only power sharing if we've accepted that principle, and say yes, as a society, what we would like to do with our participation skills is engage in the process of marketing to ourselves. But we don't get to set the goals. We just get to participate in a goal that's already been set for us.

What's interesting is the way in which these campaigns enlist consumers to take marketing priorities. It actually works to create subjects who embrace priorities that were not their own as their own. Help make commercials for us. On the one hand, it enlists a creative potential, people want to create things and the wonderful thing about technology and the Internet is that it really is empowering in terms of giving people the ability to participate in media production. It's so easy to make your own video or podcast now if you have access to some relatively inexpensive technology. But to take that power and then turn it to the ends of marketing to yourselves and others. The companies are going to validate what you do and might even give it some air time, but in exchange what you have to do is inhabit the marketing mindset and turn your creative abilities to the ends of marketing. The more that interactivity comes to mean participating in marketing to ourselves, the more we start to think about what democracy and participation means in terms of adopting the priorities of marketers.

OR: Talk about the Television Without Pity online community that you explored. This was a case where bad TV is written about with wit.

MA: We might imagine that if people get to participate more, and they're very critical of the type of programming that's available to them, that might lead to some change in the programming that's available. I'm not ruling that out, but what intrigued me was that the Internet can actually function as a compensatory mechanism. If the TV program is really bad, you can actually entertain yourself by pointing out how bad it is and making fun it and actually turn bad TV into something that's more entertaining than it would be without this interactive component to it. I wrote a previous book about reality TV, and I had to watch a lot of Big Brother, the U.S. version. The first season was so boring, but I went into the bulletin boards and the chatrooms and the online community was very smart and interesting. That made the viewing experience more fun without actually making the content of the programming any better. That's the symptom of a kind of savvy, sarcastic society.

OR: You talk about the promise of interactivity in politics as similar to that of marketing. There's a sort of dystopic example you give of each individual in a family is "marketed" differently on a candidate -- or disincluded altogether if they're not deemed an important vote. This seems to get at an important distinction between customization and discrimination. Can you talk about this?

MA: The flip side of customization is discrimination, and I'm concerned with how this functions in a political context. If I don't get a customized ad for a Ferrari because I'm the wrong demographic, no big deal. I do worry about how customization plays out as discrimination in the era of targeting campaigning. Excluding particular groups from information about a candidate or an election because of their past pattern of voting (or nonvoting) lowers the amount of political information out there and may prevent people from entering into the political process. In a democracy, we're supposed to know as much as possible about the candidates' positions, and they're only supposed to know selected information about our policy preferences. The prospect of mass customized politics shifts the balance: politicians learn as much as possible about us in order to craft a selective image that can be customized for target audiences. Different people vote for different versions of the same candidate. I'm not saying this doesn't happen already, but customization promises to exacerbate the process. It also shifts the balance of power; we should know more about candidates than they do about us. It also facilitates misleading and manipulating campaigning.

OR: You compare government's post-9/11 surveillance to online dating. Explain.

MA: We live in a world in which the equation of interactivity with monitoring has become insidiously pervasive. Commercial entities invite us to participate, when what they really want to do is gather information about us. The government enjoins us to participate in the war on terror by submitting to increased surveillance -- and, significantly, watching over one another. Security, in these troubled times, means turning the country into a huge neighborhood watch program. But what's good for national security is also portrayed as good for personal security -- in the era of neoliberalization, the two become one and the same.

The "democratization" of interactive technologies results in widespread access to selected monitoring strategies. You can buy your own, cheap video monitoring system for your home at Wal-Mart. You can background-check your neighbors, friends and family online. You can download a voice-stress analyzer to use on your kids or your significant other. What interests me is the dual purposing of interactive surveillance: You might buy a home surveillance system for protection against theft -- or infidelity. More and more we are being told that in an increasingly risk-permeated society we need to embrace technologies of surveillance -- not just be submitting to them, but also by using them on one another ... for national security and/or personal security. These reality shows that show us how to conduct forensic analysis of the rooms of potential dates or to submit them to lie detector interrogations seem symptomatic of the popular embrace of interactivity as surveillance.

OR: How can we seek true interactivity? In other words, is there hope?

MA: I wouldn't have gotten worked up enough to write the book if I didn't think there was some hope. Digital media technologies have amazing potential for the facilitating the information access, deliberation and accountability that are crucial to a truly democratic society. The fact that they can do so doesn't mean that they necessarily will -- that's the fallacy of most of the celebratory rhetoric about digital democracy.

We need to make them work for democratic ends. First, power sharing means participation not just in the strategy for obtaining a particular end, such as selling a product or promoting security, but in defining what those ends are. Participation in the process of marketing to ourselves is not true interactivity, because the ends are given in advance: Sell more products to more people. Commercial participation doesn't include the option of deciding, for example, that less marketing might be a desirable end. I think true interactivity also entails shared control over the networks and the databases. I'm not saying that we should get rid of commercial databases, but we shouldn't confuse our participation in creating them with empowerment or democracy. Where it really counts for democratic purposes we should consider the potential of nonprofit, public and independent databases and networks. Who says all information databases have to be privately held -- what about public libraries? Who says all networks have to be privately owned and operated? For much of its history, the Internet wasn't. Even in the information age, bricks-and-mortar infrastructure matters -- whoever owns or controls it will be able to set the ends for which it is put to use.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. A former assistant editor of AlterNet.org, she has written for AlterNet, The American Prospect, MotherJones.com, In These Times, Huffington Post, Truthdig, PopMatters, and Women's eNews.

 
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