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Most Americans Think They’re Being Constantly Tracked, Study Finds

More than 60% of Americans think it’s impossible to go through daily life without being tracked by companies or the government, according to a new Pew Research study. It’s not just that Americans (correctly) think companies are collecting their data. They don’t like it. About 69% of Americans are skeptical that companies will use their private information in a way they’re comfortable with, while 79% don’t believe that companies will come clean if they misuse the information. When it comes to who they trust, there are differences by race. About 73% of black Americans, for instance, are at least a little worried about what law enforcement knows about them, compared with 56% of white Americans. But among all respondents, more than 80% were concerned about what social-media sites and advertisers might know. Despite these concerns, more than 80% of Americans feel they have no control over how their information is collected.

Google’s Secret ‘Project Nightingale’ Gathers Personal Health Data on Millions of Americans

Google is teaming with one of the country’s largest health-care systems on a secret project to collect and crunch the detailed personal health information of millions of Americans across 21 states, WSJ reported Monday, citing people familiar with the matter and internal documents.

The initiative, code-named “Project Nightingale,” appears to be the largest in a series of efforts by Silicon Valley giants to gain access to personal health data and establish a toehold in the massive health-care industry. Amazon.com, Apple and Microsoft are also aggressively pushing into health care, though they haven’t yet struck deals of this scope. Google launched the effort last year with St. Louis-based Ascension, the country’s second-largest health system. The data involved in Project Nightingale includes lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, complete with patient names and dates of birth.

Neither patients nor doctors have been notified. At least 150 Google employees already have access to much of the data on tens of millions of patients, according to a person familiar with the matter and the documents.

Google in this case is using the data in part to design new software, underpinned by advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Google appears to be sharing information within Project Nightingale more broadly than in its other forays into health-care data. In September, Google announced a 10-year deal with the Mayo Clinic to store the hospital system’s genetic, medical and financial records.

Google co-founder Larry Page, in a 2014 interview, suggested that patients worried about the privacy of their medical records were too cautious. Mr. Page said: “We’re not really thinking about the tremendous good that can come from people sharing information with the right people in the right ways.”

Researchers Tricked Google Home and Alexa Into Eavesdropping and Password Phishing

What if Google and Amazon employees weren’t the only ones who’d listened through your voice assistant? Ars Technica reports:

The threat isn’t just theoretical. Whitehat hackers at Germany’s Security Research Labs developed eight apps — four Alexa “skills” and four Google Home “actions” — that all passed Amazon or Google security-vetting processes. The skills or actions posed as simple apps for checking horoscopes, with the exception of one, which masqueraded as a random-number generator. Behind the scenes, these “smart spies,” as the researchers call them, surreptitiously eavesdropped on users and phished for their passwords…

The apps gave the impression they were no longer running when they, in fact, silently waited for the next phase of the attack…. The apps quietly logged all conversations within earshot of the device and sent a copy to a developer-designated server. The phishing apps follow a slightly different path by responding with an error message that claims the skill or action isn’t available in that user’s country. They then go silent to give the impression the app is no longer running. After about a minute, the apps use a voice that mimics the ones used by Alexa and Google home to falsely claim a device update is available and prompts the user for a password for it to be installed….

In response, both companies removed the apps and said they are changing their approval processes to prevent skills and actions from having similar capabilities in the future.

Voice From ‘Nest’ Camera Threatens to Steal Baby

Jack Newcombe, the Chief Operating Officer of a syndication company with 44 million daily readers, describes the strange voice he heard talking to his 18-month old son:
She says we have a nice house and encourages the nanny to respond. She does not. The voice even jokes that she hopes we don’t change our password. I am sick to my stomach. After about five minutes of verbal “joy riding,” the voice starts to get agitated at the nanny’s lack of response and then snaps, in a very threatening voice: “I’m coming for the baby if you don’t answer me….” We unplug the cameras and change all passwords…

Still helpless, I started doing the only thing I could do — Googling. I typed “Nest + camera + hacked” and found out that this happens frequently. Parent after parent relayed stories similar to mine — threatening to steal a baby is shockingly common — and some much worse, such as playing pornography over the microphone to a 3-year-old… What is worse is that anyone could have been watching us at any time for as long as we have had the cameras up. This person just happened to use the microphone. Countless voyeurs could have been silently watching (or worse) for months.

However, what makes this issue even more terrifying is a corporate giant’s complete and utter lack of response. Nest is owned by Google, and, based on my experience and their public response, Google does not seem to care about this issue. They acknowledge it as a problem, shrug their shoulders and point their fingers at the users. Their party line is to remind people that the hardware was not hacked; it was the user’s fault for using a compromised password and not implementing two-step authentication, in which users receive a special code via text to sign on. That night, on my way home from work, I called Nest support and was on hold for an hour and eight minutes. I followed all directions and have subsequently received form emails in broken English. Nobody from Google has acknowledged the incident or responded with any semblance of empathy. In every email, they remind me of two-step authentication.

They act as if I am going to continue to use Nest cameras.

Google Chief: I’d Disclose Smart Speakers Before Guests Enter My Home

After being challenged as to whether homeowners should tell guests smart devices — such as a Google Nest speaker or Amazon Echo display — are in use before they enter the building, Google senior vice president of devices and services, Rick Osterloh, concludes that the answer is indeed yes. The BBC reports:

“Gosh, I haven’t thought about this before in quite this way,” Rick Osterloh begins. “It’s quite important for all these technologies to think about all users… we have to consider all stakeholders that might be in proximity.” And then he commits. “Does the owner of a home need to disclose to a guest? I would and do when someone enters into my home, and it’s probably something that the products themselves should try to indicate.”

To be fair to Google, it hasn’t completely ignored matters of 21st Century privacy etiquette until now. As Mr Osterloh points out, its Nest cameras shine an LED light when they are in record mode, which cannot be overridden. But the idea of having to run around a home unplugging or at least restricting the capabilities of all its voice- and camera-equipped kit if a visitor objects is quite the ask.

The concession came at the end of one-on-one interview given to BBC News to mark the launch of Google’s Pixel 4 smartphones, a new Nest smart speaker and other products. You can read the full conversation on the BBC’s article.

Smart TVs Are Data-Collecting Machines, New Study Shows

A new study from Princeton University shows internet-connected TVs, which allow people to stream Netflix and Hulu, are loaded with data-hungry trackers. “If you use a device such as Roku and Amazon Fire TV, there are numerous companies that can build up a fairly comprehensive picture of what you’re watching,” Arvind Narayanan, associate professor of computer science at Princeton, wrote in an email to The Verge. “There’s very little oversight or awareness of their practices, including where that data is being sold.” From the report:
To understand how much surveillance is taking place on smart TVs, Narayanan and his co-author Hooman Mohajeri Moghaddam built a bot that automatically installed thousands of channels on their Roku and Amazon Fire TVs. It then mimicked human behavior by browsing and watching videos. As soon as it ran into an ad, it would track what data was being collected behind the scenes. Some of the information, like device type, city, and state, is hardly unique to one user. But other data, like the device serial number, Wi-Fi network, and advertising ID, could be used to pinpoint an individual. “This gives them a more complete picture of who you are,” said Moghaddam. He noted that some channels even sent unencrypted email addresses and video titles to the trackers.

In total, the study found trackers on 69 percent of Roku channels and 89 percent of Amazon Fire channels. “Some of these are well known, such as Google, while many others are relatively obscure companies that most of us have never heard of,” Narayanan said. Google’s ad service DoubleClick was found on 97 percent of Roku channels. “Like other publishers, smart TV app developers can use Google’s ad services to show ads against their content, and we’ve helped design industry guidelines for this that enable a privacy-safe experience for users,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement emailed to The Verge. “Depending on the user’s preferences, the developer may share data with Google that’s similar to data used for ads in mobile apps or on the web.”
“Better privacy controls would certainly help, but they are ultimately band-aids,” Narayanan said. “The business model of targeted advertising on TVs is incompatible with privacy, and we need to confront that reality. To maximize revenue, platforms based on ad targeting will likely turn to data mining and algorithmic personalization/persuasion to keep people glued to the screen as long as possible.”

Another study from Northeastern University and the Imperial College of London found that other smart-home devices are also collecting reams of data that is being sent to third parties like advertisers and major tech companies.

Amazon Workers May Be Watching Your Cloud Cam Home Footage

In a promotional video, Amazon says its Cloud Cam home security camera provides “everything you need to monitor your home, day or night.” In fact, the artificially intelligent device requires help from a squad of invisible employees. Dozens of Amazon workers based in India and Romania review select clips captured by Cloud Cam, according to five people who have worked on the program or have direct knowledge of it. Those video snippets are then used to train the AI algorithms to do a better job distinguishing between a real threat (a home invader) and a false alarm (the cat jumping on the sofa). An Amazon team also transcribes and annotates commands recorded in customers’ homes by the company’s Alexa digital assistant, Bloomberg reported in April.

AI has made it possible to talk to your phone. It’s helping investors predict shifts in market sentiment. But the technology is far from infallible. Cloud Cam sends out alerts when it’s just paper rustling in a breeze. Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa still occasionally mishear commands. One day, engineers may overcome these shortfalls, but for now AI needs human assistance. Lots of it. At one point, on a typical day, some Amazon auditors were each annotating about 150 video recordings, which were typically 20 to 30 seconds long, according to the people, who requested anonymity to talk about an internal program.

FBI’s Use of Surveillance Database Violated Americans’ Privacy Rights: Court

Some of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s electronic surveillance activities violated the constitutional privacy rights of Americans swept up in a controversial foreign intelligence program (Warning: source paywalled; alternative source), a secretive surveillance court has ruled. The ruling deals a rare rebuke to U.S. spying activities that have generally withstood legal challenge or review. The intelligence community disclosed Tuesday that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court last year found that the FBI’s pursuit of data about Americans ensnared in a warrantless internet-surveillance program intended to target foreign suspects may have violated the law authorizing the program, as well as the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

The court concluded that the FBI had been improperly searching a database of raw intelligence for information on Americans — raising concerns about oversight of the program, which as a spy program operates in near total secrecy. The court ruling identifies tens of thousands of improper searches of raw intelligence databases by the bureau in 2017 and 2018 that it deemed improper in part because they involved data related to tens of thousands of emails or telephone numbers — in one case, suggesting that the FBI was using the intelligence information to vet its personnel and cooperating sources. Federal law requires that the database only be searched by the FBI as part of seeking evidence of a crime or for foreign intelligence information. In other cases, the court ruling reveals improper use of the database by individuals. In one case, an FBI contractor ran a query of an intelligence database — searching information on himself, other FBI personnel and his relatives, the court revealed.

How the FBI targeted environmental activists in domestic terror investigations

The investigations, which targeted individual activists and some environmental organizations, were opened in 2013-2014, at the height of opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline and the expansion of fossil fuel production in North America.

The new FOIA documents reveal the bureau’s motivation for investigating a broad cross section of the environmental movement and its characterization of non-violent protesters as a potential threat to national security.

In 2010, the DOJ’s inspector general criticized the FBI for using non-violent civil disobedience as grounds to open domestic terrorism investigations. US citizens swept up in such investigations can be placed on terrorism watchlists and subjected to surveillance and restrictions on international travel. The designation can also lead local law enforcement to take a more confrontational approach when engaging with non-violent activists.

The 120 Most CCTV Surveilled Cities In the World

Comparitech.com has published a report and spreadsheet laying out how many CCTV cameras are in operation in 120 different cities around the world, and data for the crime rates in these cities. The report notes “We found little correlation between the number of public CCTV cameras and crime or safety.”

8 of the 10 most surveilled cities are in China, even though London and Atlana also make the cut, and the report says that — depending on what numbers you believe — China will have between 200 Million and 626 Million CCTV cameras, or possibly even more, in operation by 2020. That would be almost 1 CCTV camera per 2 citizens in the country, and the number could go up.

Outside of China, the top most-surveilled cities in the world are:

London – 68.40 cameras per 1,000 people
Atlanta – 15.56 cameras per 1,000 people
Singapore – 15.25 cameras per 1,000 people
Abu Dhabi – 13.77 cameras per 1,000 people
Chicago – 13.06 cameras per 1,000 people
Sydney – 12.35 cameras per 1,000 people
Baghdad – 12.30 cameras per 1,000 people
Dubai – 12.14 cameras per 1,000 people
Moscow – 11.70 cameras per 1,000 people
Berlin – 11.18 cameras per 1,000 people
New Delhi – 9.62 cameras per 1,000 people

Facial Recognition Deployed on Children at Hundreds of US Summer Camps

The Washington Post describes a parent whose phone “rings 10 times a day with notifications from the summer camp’s facial-recognition service, which alerts him whenever one of his girls is photographed enjoying their newfound independence.”

You can also call your kid if you think they look unhappy or if you are unsatisfied with them in any way and nag them. So kids mob photographers with big, fake smiles and beg to be photographed so their parents won’t harass them.

The companies have “privacy policies” that grossly overreach, giving them perpetual licenses to distribute all the photos they take forever, for any purpose. They claim to have super-secure data-centers, but won’t describe what makes them so sure their data centers are more secure than, say, the NSA’s, Equifax, or any of the other “super secure” data centers that have been breached and dumped in recent memory.

And while parents enjoy all this looking at their kids while they’re away in theory, they also report a kind of free-floating anxiety because they know just enough about their kids’ lives at camp to worry, but not enough to assuage their worries.

One overseer of two camps tells the Post that more concerned parents call her in two hours than used to call in an entire month. One company adds that their service is now being used by over 160,000 parents — and for children as young as six.

At least one camp takes over 1,000 photos each day — scanning each one with facial recognition technology — and the Post reports that facial-recognition technology has now already been deployed at “hundreds” of summer camps all across the United States.

Most camp directors said they appreciate that the photos can bring peace of mind to lonely parents worried about their kids’ first faraway solo trip. But the photos can also end up perpetuating a cycle of parental anxiety: The more photos the camp posts, the more the parents seem to want – and the more questions they’ll ask about their kids.

When a camper isn’t smiling or is on the outside of a big group shot, counselors said they know to expect a phone call from back home. Liz Young, a longtime camp director now helping oversee two camps on the coast of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, said she now fields as many concerned-parents calls in two hours as she used to get all month – mostly from parents asking about how their kids look on camera, or whether they’re being photographed enough.

One camp, Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods in rural Decatur, Michigan, has four photographers and a social-media director on staff to help push nearly constant updates onto Bunk1, Facebook and Instagram, where recent photos of kids jumping into a lake or firing bows and arrows have netted hundreds of comments and “likes.” The facial-recognition system is in its second summer at the camp, and roughly half of all parents of its campers have signed up.

Some of the kids, Hardin said, are so accustomed to constant photography that they barely notice the camera crew. It’s the parents, she said, who struggle with the distance – and who are desperate for the reassurance the facial-recognition systems provide.

Some parents race to share the photos on social media as a way to curate their kids’ childhood and offer visual evidence that their family is worth envying.

The photos could inflame new tensions for kids hitting the age – generally, in the pre- and early teens – when they can start to feel awkward about all the photos their parents post. But they can also foster unease for kids questioning how much of their emotions and internal lives they’re comfortable sharing in every moment, even when they’re far from home.

“There’s the contradiction of these really old-fashioned summer camps with no electricity in the cabins, no cellphones . . . but the parents can check in daily to look at the expressions on their kids’ faces,” she added. “Part of childhood development is: It isn’t always 100 percent smiling.”

FBI seeks to monitor Facebook, oversee mass social media data collection

The FBI is planning to aggressively harvest information from Facebook and Twitter, a move which is likely to cause a clash between the agency and social media platforms.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the FBI has recently sought proposals from third-party vendors for technological solutions able to harvest publicly-available information in bulk from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets.

Law enforcement has requested the means to “obtain the full social media profile of persons-of-interest and their affiliation to any organization or groups,” to keep track of users based on their neighborhood, and keyword searches, among other tool functions.

While the FBI believes that such tools can work in harmony with privacy safeguards and civil liberties, the mass collection of names, photos, and IDs — when combined with information from other sources — may do just the opposite.

Back in July, for example, there was a public outcry after it was discovered that the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were plundering databases belonging to the DMV for surveillance and investigative purposes.

Facebook Paid Contractors to Transcribe Users’ Audio Chats

Facebook Inc. has been paying hundreds of outside contractors to transcribe clips of audio from users of its services, according to people with knowledge of the work.

The work has rattled the contract employees, who are not told where the audio was recorded or how it was obtained — only to transcribe it, said the people, who requested anonymity for fear of losing their jobs. They’re hearing Facebook users’ conversations, sometimes with vulgar content, but do not know why Facebook needs them transcribed, the people said.

Facebook confirmed that it had been transcribing users’ audio and said it will no longer do so, following scrutiny into other companies. “Much like Apple and Google, we paused human review of audio more than a week ago,” the company said Tuesday. The company said the users who were affected chose the option in Facebook’s Messenger app to have their voice chats transcribed. The contractors were checking whether Facebook’s artificial intelligence correctly interpreted the messages, which were anonymized.

Big tech companies including Amazon.com Inc. and Apple Inc. have come under fire for collecting audio snippets from consumer computing devices and subjecting those clips to human review, a practice that critics say invades privacy. Bloomberg first reported in April that Amazon had a team of thousands of workers around the world listening to Alexa audio requests with the goal of improving the software, and that similar human review was used for Apple’s Siri and Alphabet Inc.’s Google Assistant. Apple and Google have since said they no longer engage in the practice and Amazon said it will let users opt out of human review.

The social networking giant, which just completed a $5 billion settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission after a probe of its privacy practices, has long denied that it collects audio from users to inform ads or help determine what people see in their news feeds. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg denied the idea directly in Congressional testimony.

In follow-up answers for Congress, the company said it “only accesses users’ microphone if the user has given our app permission and if they are actively using a specific feature that requires audio (like voice messaging features.)” The Menlo Park, California-based company doesn’t address what happens to the audio afterward.

Pentagon testing mass surveillance balloons across the US

The US military is conducting wide-area surveillance tests across six midwest states using experimental high-altitude balloons, documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reveal.

Up to 25 unmanned solar-powered balloons are being launched from rural South Dakota and drifting 250 miles through an area spanning portions of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri, before concluding in central Illinois.

Travelling in the stratosphere at altitudes of up to 65,000ft, the balloons are intended to “provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats”, according to a filing made on behalf of the Sierra Nevada Corporation, an aerospace and defence company.

The balloons are carrying hi-tech radars designed to simultaneously track many individual vehicles day or night, through any kind of weather.

A rival balloon operator World View recently announced that it had carried out multi-week test missions in which its own stratospheric balloons were able to hover over a five-mile-diameter area for six and a half hours, and larger areas for days at a time.

Ryan Hartman, CEO of World View, said that World View had also completed a dozen surveillance test missions for a customer it would not name, capturing data he would not specify.

“Obviously, there are laws to protect people’s privacy and we are respectful of all those laws,” Hartman said. “We also understand the importance of operating in an ethical way as it relates to further protecting people’s privacy.”

How America’s Tech Giants Are Helping Build China’s Surveillance State

The OpenPower Foundation — a nonprofit led by Google and IBM executives with the aim of trying to “drive innovation” — has set up a collaboration between IBM, Chinese company Semptian, and U.S. chip manufacturer Xilinx. Together, they have worked to advance a breed of microprocessors that enable computers to analyze vast amounts of data more efficiently. Shenzhen-based Semptian is using the devices to enhance the capabilities of internet surveillance and censorship technology it provides to human rights-abusing security agencies in China, according to sources and documents. A company employee said that its technology is being used to covertly monitor the internet activity of 200 million people…

Semptian presents itself publicly as a “big data” analysis company that works with internet providers and educational institutes. However, a substantial portion of the Chinese firm’s business is in fact generated through a front company named iNext, which sells the internet surveillance and censorship tools to governments. iNext operates out of the same offices in China as Semptian, with both companies on the eighth floor of a tower in Shenzhen’s busy Nanshan District. Semptian and iNext also share the same 200 employees and the same founder, Chen Longsen. [The company’s] Aegis equipment has been placed within China’s phone and internet networks, enabling the country’s government to secretly collect people’s email records, phone calls, text messages, cellphone locations, and web browsing histories, according to two sources familiar with Semptian’s work.

Promotional documents obtained from the company promise “location information for everyone in the country.” One company representative even told the Intercept they were processing “thousands of terabits per second,” and — not knowing they were talking to a reporter — forwarded a 16-minute video detailing their technology. “If a government operative enters a person’s cellphone number, Aegis can show where the device has been over a given period of time: the last three days, the last week, the last month, or longer,” the Intercept reports.

Amazon Alexa Keeps Your Data With No Expiration Date, and Shares It Too

If you have hangups about Amazon and privacy on its smart assistant, Alexa, you’re not alone. Even after Amazon sent answers to a US senator who had questions about how the tech giant retains voice data and transcripts, the lawmaker remains concerned about Alexa’s privacy practices. From a report:

Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in May, demanding answers on Alexa and how long it kept voice recordings and transcripts, as well as what the data gets used for. The letter came after CNET’s report that Amazon kept transcripts of interactions with Alexa, even after people deleted the voice recordings. The deadline for answers was June 30, and Amazon’s vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, sent a response on June 28. In the letter, Huseman tells Coons that Amazon keeps transcripts and voice recordings indefinitely, and only removes them if they’re manually deleted by users. Huseman also noted that Amazon had an “ongoing effort to ensure those transcripts do not remain in any of Alexa’s other storage systems.” But there are still records from some conversations with Alexa that Amazon won’t delete, even if people remove the audio, the letter revealed.

Smartphones and Fitness Trackers Are Being Used To Gauge Employee Performance

The passive system incorporates an app known as PhoneAgent, which was developed by Prof. Andrew Campbell at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College. Using the smartphone’s own sensors, that app continuously monitors factors such as the worker’s phone usage, physical activity level, geographical location, and the ambient light levels of their environment. PhoneAgent is also Bluetooth-linked to a fitness bracelet worn by the employee, which transmits data including their heart functions, sleep quality, stress levels, and calorie consumption. Additionally, Bluetooth locational beacons in the person’s home and workplace monitor how much time they spend at each place, and how often they leave their workstation.

All of the phone, bracelet and beacon data is transmitted to a cloud-based server, where it’s processed via machine-learning algorithms that were “trained” on the habits of people already known to be high- or low-level performers. When tested on 750 workers across the U.S. over a one-year period, the system was reportedly able to distinguish between individuals’ performance levels (in a variety of industries) with an accuracy of 80 percent. That number should rise as the system is developed further.

When Myspace Was King, Employees Abused a Tool Called ‘Overlord’ to Spy on Users

During the social network’s heyday, multiple Myspace employees abused an internal company tool to spy on users, in some cases including ex-partners, Motherboard reported on Monday.

Named ‘Overlord,’ the tool allowed employees to see users’ passwords and their messages, two former employees said. While the tool was originally designed to help moderate the platform and allow MySpace to comply with law enforcement requests, multiple sources said the tool was used for illegitimate purposes by employees who accessed Myspace user data without authorization to do so. “It was basically an entire backdoor to the Myspace platform,” one of the former employees said of Overlord. (Motherboard granted five former Myspace employees anonymity to discuss internal Myspace incidents.) The abuse happened about a decade ago, closer to the height of the platform’s popularity, according to multiple sources. In fall 2006, the platform signed up its 100 millionth user. Around this time, Myspace was the second most popular website in the U.S., and ranked higher than Google search.

Google Chrome ‘Has Become Surveillance Software. It’s Time to Switch’

“You open your browser to look at the Web. Do you know who is looking back at you?” warns Washington Post technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler.

Over a recent week of Web surfing, I peered under the hood of Google Chrome and found it brought along a few thousand friends. Shopping, news and even government sites quietly tagged my browser to let ad and data companies ride shotgun while I clicked around the Web. This was made possible by the Web’s biggest snoop of all: Google. Seen from the inside, its Chrome browser looks a lot like surveillance software…

My tests of Chrome vs. Firefox unearthed a personal data caper of absurd proportions. In a week of Web surfing on my desktop, I discovered 11,189 requests for tracker “cookies” that Chrome would have ushered right onto my computer but were automatically blocked by Firefox. These little files are the hooks that data firms, including Google itself, use to follow what websites you visit so they can build profiles of your interests, income and personality… And that’s not the half of it. Look in the upper right corner of your Chrome browser. See a picture or a name in the circle? If so, you’re logged in to the browser, and Google might be tapping into your Web activity to target ads. Don’t recall signing in? I didn’t, either. Chrome recently started doing that automatically when you use Gmail.

Chrome is even sneakier on your phone. If you use Android, Chrome sends Google your location every time you conduct a search. (If you turn off location sharing it still sends your coordinates out, just with less accuracy.)

The columnist concludes that “having the world’s biggest advertising company make the most popular Web browser was about as smart as letting kids run a candy shop,” and argues that through its Doubleclick and other ad businesses, Google “is the No. 1 cookie maker — the Mrs. Fields of the web.”

Do Google and Facebook Threaten Our ‘Ambient Privacy’?

Until recently, ambient privacy was a simple fact of life. Recording something for posterity required making special arrangements, and most of our shared experience of the past was filtered through the attenuating haze of human memory. Even police states like East Germany, where one in seven citizens was an informer, were not able to keep tabs on their entire population. Today computers have given us that power. Authoritarian states like China and Saudi Arabia are using this newfound capacity as a tool of social control. Here in the United States, we’re using it to show ads. But the infrastructure of total surveillance is everywhere the same, and everywhere being deployed at scale….

Because our laws frame privacy as an individual right, we don’t have a mechanism for deciding whether we want to live in a surveillance society. Congress has remained silent on the matter, with both parties content to watch Silicon Valley make up its own rules. The large tech companies point to our willing use of their services as proof that people don’t really care about their privacy. But this is like arguing that inmates are happy to be in jail because they use the prison library. Confronted with the reality of a monitored world, people make the rational decision to make the best of it.

That is not consent…

Our discourse around privacy needs to expand to address foundational questions about the role of automation: To what extent is living in a surveillance-saturated world compatible with pluralism and democracy? What are the consequences of raising a generation of children whose every action feeds into a corporate database? What does it mean to be manipulated from an early age by machine learning algorithms that adaptively learn to shape our behavior? That is not the conversation Facebook or Google want us to have. Their totalizing vision is of a world with no ambient privacy and strong data protections, dominated by the few companies that can manage to hoard information at a planetary scale. They correctly see the new round of privacy laws as a weapon to deploy against smaller rivals, further consolidating their control over the algorithmic panopticon.