A Lot of Govt. Surveillance Is Just Copied from Online Marketing Techniques Designed to Predict Our Behavior

Human Rights

If civil libertarians who are disappointed with the proposals Obama outlined last week had to write a wish list for what kind of restraints they'd like to see on National Security Agency data-gathering, what might that include? Here's an educated guess:

Individual Control: The right to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it.
Transparency: The right to easily understandable information about privacy and security practices.
Focused Collection: The right to reasonable limits on the personal data that organizations collect and retain.
Accountability: The right to have personal data handled by organizations with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Bill of Rights.

Nevermind that the Obama administration has endorsed all of those rights. Almost two years ago, actually. What's more, they got Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL to agree to observe them. The bad news: these rights apply only to web-browsing data gathered by companies that deploy "behavior-based marketing". You know, the kind of tracking that means a search for "white wedding" will serve of ads for The Knot (even if you were looking for Billy Idol).

In February of 2012, the White House issued a white paper outlining a "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights" that is arguably more comprehensive than the one that's supposed to rein in government. It outlined the rights above and tasked the Federal Trade Commission with enforcing them; the first concrete action was to be the development of a "Do Not Track" standard, allowing consumers to simply shake their electronic tail. So, second piece of bad news: The Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights has been almost as ineffective at preventing data collection as the original.

In addition to everything else they know about us, the corporations that agreed to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights know that modern Americans feel significantly more discomfort about Big Shopping than they do about Big Brother. Even without a standardized "Do Not Track" feature, the percentage of internet users who opt out of tracking is growing rapidly. Among Firefox users, it went from around 4% at the time of the white paper to almost 12% a year later (14% among mobile users). Among all browsers, it's about 8%. This may seem like a tiny percentage, but it's enough of one that marketers are fighting every attempt to make opting out easier.

An astounding 71% of those polled say they are "very concerned" about "companies selling or sharing their information about them without their permission". Imagine if those people knew there were, or are supposed to be, ways to prevent it.

Increasing awareness about marketers' peeping and user attempts to escape it are probably why the consortium of "stakeholders" (media companies and privacy advocates) that was to come up with the "Do Not Track" standard actually voted to disband last fall. Marketers and developers would not give an inch, even on such seemingly simple issues as to where the "switch" to turn tracking off might be. Privacy advocates wanted it to exist as part of the browser installation, as much a part of the process as downloading the software itself. Developers and advertisers wanted it to be in the browser settings, next to the default homepage you probably haven't changed.

When privacy advocates balked at that, a lawyer for the Digital Advertising Alliance soothed:

By putting it in a browser setting, you create a little bit of friction so that you make it simple enough for people who want to find it … But you don't treat it as if it's a matter of national security, because it's not.

Of course, it is. Last month, the latest release of NSA documents showed that the agency uses exactly those cookies that "deliver and improve" our online experience to fish out individual users from the sea of data they collect and, further, to mark potential targets for "remote exploitation".

This revelation obviously highlights the irony of the Obama administration's agitation for consumer privacy; it should draw attention to a larger if more subtle issue as well: the synchronicity between how marketers think of us and how the government does.

Obama's speech Friday repeatedly emphasized that the data the government collects is "bulk". That probably goes over better than saying "mass". "Mass" means you are swept up with everyone else; "bulk" implies your files are tossed haphazardly in a drawer. The way the program is supposed to work, he explained, is that we just have this huge file lying around and then, when the government finds out about a specific threat, and then they look at it.

Citizens are supposed to be comforted that the data is some huge impersonal block of numbers. It's not data, it's metadata! But the problem with mass data collection isn't that those who have it can find out about any one individual's private life, it's that if you have enough data, you don't have to find out about any one individual's life.

Marketers have learned that more quickly than the government. Foot-dragging about "Do Not Track" aside, commercial interests don't want to know about you, they want to know about people like you. One of the largest purveyors of consumer intelligence, BlueKai, has privacy protections that sound a lot like what Obama outlined Friday: they put a time limit on how long they track users and they keep all profiles anonymous (bulk!); they also limit the data available in the profiles (no financial data, no healthcare data, nothing about sex or religion). It is a form of metadata.

Their information is still incredibly valuable, because the data they collect and distribute isn't intended to track a single person; it's intended to help marketers find a group of people who can be coaxed into sharing a single interest – their product.

Massive amounts of data about millions of people allows commercial interests to sort users into categories, and then marketers can tailor that category's online experience to push its members as firmly as possible in the direction of its product. No one's privacy has been violated in the sense of having a secret revealed; it's almost the opposite, and it's almost worse: we're being manipulated in a way that makes us less individual, less unique, less capable of having secrets to begin with.

The masters of modern spycraft have learned from the masters of marketing the science of predicting human behavior. One of the main reasons for "bulk" collection, one that seems less alarming on its surface, is to watch for patterns of behavior that indicate possible terrorist activity. But when an organization is sufficiently skilled at predicting human behavior, the next phase, almost inevitably, is to try to influence it.

We need to update our vision of what an Orwellian use of bulk data might be. We probably don't have to worry about federal agents knocking down doors in the middle of the night. Tyranny can be a lot more insidious than that. It can be the limitation of options, the curbing of ambitions, or the gentle nudging forward down a path you thought you choose.

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