To what extent do companies use the internet to spy on us? Most people believe that they are aware of this issue and that they know that Google collects information about them. Do we exaggerate how much the internet spies on us, or do we understate it? According to an advertising insider who left the business due to the spying seeming too immoral, the typical person today underestimates the extent to which they are being spied on and has no idea how bad things already are.
A couple of years ago, Richard Stokes realized that the advertising company he worked for had gone too far. While watching a video from a company that sold data, the salesperson demonstrated that they could pull up a file on a person that they knew by name and reveal a frightening amount of data about them. Not only was there information about the person’s age, sex, and wealth, but also their politics, what property they owned, and their personal interests. Only a person’s close friends and family are likely to know as much about them as a data selling company. A data company often even knows a person’s secrets, things that they might not share even with people close to them.
A second data selling company showed a red dot moving around a map, using their phone to track the person’s location. The representative then made inferences about who the person is based on their daily schedule. This second demonstration, in particular, unsettled the audience. Everyone’s phone tracks them. If you carry a phone with you, advertisers can know where you are and learn about you. Until he saw the industry from the inside, Richard Stokes did not believe that the advertising industry was doing anything truly Orwellian. These demonstrations convinced Stokes to leave the advertising industry, which he now considered immoral. Perhaps nothing genuinely evil is yet done with the data collected, but that may become less true over time. If a corporation wanted to do something blatantly immoral or illegal that required them to possess plenty of information about individuals, it would now be easier for them to buy such information than ever before.
Would it be possible to reduce the extent of this new surveillance in the near future? About 61% of Americans say that they are concerned about their digital privacy, so it is not the case that people do not even care. Presumably, a person’s right to opt out of information gathering should be legally protected and well understood by the average person. It must become illegal for companies to refuse service to those who refuse to allow their data to be collected. Stokes also argues that some information should be unlawful to collect if it is too easy to abuse. Information about medical issues, for example, should never be collected and stored by data collection companies. Without getting the law involved, problems with the collection of personal data are likely to worsen in the future. Many of the world’s wealthiest companies became rich by collecting and selling data. They are not going to switch to another business model unless they are forced to by new laws.