Search this Blog

How the I-Spies Gave Big Brother a Bad Name

 By Hector Cisneros

Image courtesy Pixabay

In George Orwell’s Sci-Fi novel 1984, there was no place the masses could go where they weren’t being observed and coerced by Big Brother.  While 1984 was a work of fiction and the year 1984 came and went without a hitch, fast forward 37 years and suddenly the kind of dystopian surveillance society George Orwell portrayed isn’t such a stretch of the imagination.  Everyone from governments to business owners and numerous consumers routinely use video surveillance to keep an eye on the public.  Data mining is a way of life online and off.  The NSA acknowledges that it routinely monitors phone, text, and emails being sent and received by us all.  On top of that, big businesses are now employing artificial intelligence to sift through the mountains of data they routinely collect on every man woman, and child online.  In today’s blog, I will give you the latest updates on what's what when it comes to Internet spying.

In a recent blog entitled, “Google Has a New Ad Tracker – Use This Site to See if it’s Spying on You, it was reported that the world’s most popular search engine has added a new proprietary tracking algorithm called FLOC (Federated Learning of Cohorts).  FLOC operates behind the scenes on Chrome, tracking web searches and where those searches lead you.  Then it assesses your browsing behavior before grouping you with other like-minded people (i.e. your cohort). This enables Google to better target what ads to serve to you and those like you.  This in essence allows Google to categorize your buying habits which they can then share with vendors without providing them any raw data.  The reason this became necessary was due to recent legislation that forced companies to ask for and receive permission to track users online.  If you’ve ever clicked on a site only to have a popup stop you in your tracks unless you agreed to accept a cookie, you know where this is going.  What FLOC does is attempt an end-around move by Google.  As a result, FLOC is currently being tested on  .5% of all users in the US, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Brazil, and New Zealand.  If you’d like to find out if you’re part of the flock that’s unknowingly using FLOC, click here.  

If you find out that you’ve been floced and don’t want to take it anymore, try using a browser and search engine that doesn’t track your every move.  Here are a few to consider: Safari, Comodo Dragon, Brave or Firefox browsers and Duck Duck Go, Qwant, Swisscows or SearX search engines.

Image courtesy Pixabay
Isn’t Amazon amazin’? Not only can Amazon deliver practically anything practically anywhere in 24-hours or less, it turns out that during the past few years they’ve been employing AI to determine what you’re going to buy from them long before you make a purchase.  Amazon collects a ton of data on their customers which they analyze via artificial intelligence so they can recommend items for customers to buy based on what’s termed “predictive analytics”.  The company has also developed a concept for convenience stores called Amazon Go that tracks the items customers pick up off the shelves only to ring up the charges automatically without having to stand in line at the checkout counter.  I don’t know about you, but the concept of a program that not only knows what I’m going to buy before I buy it coupled with an app that knows what I’ve picked up off the store shelves kind of creeps me out.

Mozilla flooded with requests after Apple Privacy changes hit Facebook is how the headline read ten days ago on a blog posted by  The flood of requests weren’t from Facebook users but rather from merchants who were used to an all-you-can-eat buffet approach to serving up cookies.  Recent changes made by Apple added a new privacy feature in version 14.5 of iOS, iPadOS, and tvOS that asks users if they wish to grant or deny third parties the ability to track them on apps and websites.  Additionally, according to the blog, “Apps and websites tracking users by collecting specific data also need to comply with Apple's App Tracking Transparency (ATT) framework.”  

Realizing these changes in online privacy would cut into their bottom line, many online marketers and merchants requested that their domains be added to Mozilla’s Public Suffix List or PSL.  This would allow cookies set at the domain level to be used on all subdomains, even if the subdomains weren’t related to each other or were owned by different organizations.   The reason for the Mozilla stampede was revealed in the BleepingComputer blog as follows: Facebook suggested this as a remedy for the newer privacy enhancements.” Later in the blog, it was revealed that Facebook later retracted the suggestion.  But it just goes to show you how far some companies will go to keep their snout in the data mining trough.

Image courtesy Pixabay

Protecting Privacy in an AI-Driven World – The Brookings Institute chimed in last year with an extensive study that shows that not only does data double every 2-years, the artificial intelligence being used to parse the data grows ever more sophisticated.  With this sophistication comes the potential for abuse.  Their report sums up this potential like this:

“As artificial intelligence evolves, it magnifies the ability to use personal information in ways that can intrude on privacy interests by raising analysis of personal information to new levels of power and speed.”

What’s even more disturbing is that while the US government is at long last beginning to address privacy issues, technology trumps legislation since it’s quicker to develop more powerful tracking tools than it is to draft legislation.  What makes the industry’s profligate use of AI even more galling is that in some instances the results derived are skewed or in some cases in error or prejudicial.

“Privacy legislation is complicated enough even without packing in all the social and political issues that can arise from uses of information. To evaluate the effect of AI on privacy, it is necessary to distinguish between data issues that are endemic to all AI, like the incidence of false positives and negatives or overfitting to patterns, and those that are specific to use of personal information.”

Last but not least, for years industry has flaunted its policy of stripping away a person’s right to choose by decrying that they asked for and received permission from participants, when the truth of the matter was that they baffled their users with BS. 

“Most existing privacy laws, as well as current Federal Trade Commission enforcement against unfair and deceptive practices are rooted in a model of consumer choice based on “notice-and-choice” (also referred to as “notice-and-consent”). Consumers encounter this approach in the barrage of notifications and banners linked to lengthy and uninformative privacy policies and terms and conditions that we ostensibly consent to but seldom read. This charade of consent has made it obvious that notice-and-choice has become meaningless.”

For decades, foreign governments have successfully sued companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook for flagrantly violating their constituent’s privacy.  Now that the US population is finally getting a little bit of legislative protection, let’s hope that the I-Spies don’t find yet another way to turn the tables by using technology like AI to undermine what little we have left of our privacy.

I can hear George Orwell rolling over in his grave.

Hector Cisneros is COO and Director of Social Media Marketing at Working the Web to Win, an award-winning Internet marketing company based in Jacksonville, Florida.  




No comments:

Post a Comment