Written by Christopher Shiotsu

This past Thanksgiving, a close family friend shared with me the harrowing tale of how Facebook suggested a friend that they had recently reconnected with over the phone for the first time in 30 years. What made the affair creepy, was the fact that they had only talked on the phone, and had not interacted with this person over the internet in any way. It was just the tip of an iceberg of eerily accurate advertisements spontaneously cropping up in news feeds and banner ads across the web.  

Ever feel like your phone is eavesdropping on you? New Organs wants to hear from you. It’s a project run by two Brooklyn-based artists who are aggregating tales of corporate surveillance.

From the seemingly innocuous—seeing the exact model of truck your were browsing appear in banner ads on Facebook—to the outright Orwellian, like that famous story where Target’s advertising campaign figured out a girl was pregnant before her father did, you’d be forgiven for thinking wiretapping is legal or that advertisers were downright psychic.

But to a developer, the surveillance powers of major advertising platforms like Facebook and Google are far from magic. Corporate surveillance is less a mystery and more an inevitable evolution of the data driven reality of the digital economy. In this post we take a look a closer look at corporate surveillance in everyday life.  

How Corporate Surveillance Works

To demystify corporate surveillance, you must first understand the hidden API economy that powers the apps and websites that support our digital lives. Post a photo to Instagram, and there are toggle switches to simultaneously upload it to Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Find a cafe on Yelp, and there’s Google Maps ready to help navigate you to your destination.

This seamless integration of digital apps and services is made possible thanks to APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) which allow apps to exchange data and share functionality. It would be economically infeasible for Yelp to come up with their own version of Google Maps, so they leverage Google Maps API instead.

So where exactly does the corporate surveillance factor into all of this? There’s a hidden side to the API economy that’s even more opaque to the end user, and that’s the seamless exchange of user data.

It starts out innocently enough. Measurement is the key to improvement, and you need to be able to measure KPIs (key performance indicators) such as downloads, click through and conversion rates before you can take deliberate actions to improve your digital products and services.

Expand that scope further, and there is a strong incentive for businesses to learn as much as they can about their customers so that they can better sell to them. That means tracking more private information such as location, search preferences, and friend networks to create social graphs that can be leveraged in marketing strategies powered by predictive analytics. This is especially true for advertisers who directly make money by connecting businesses to their target markets.

A big part of the API economy is social media sites offering APIs for pulling user analytics from their platforms. Information is exchanged seamlessly between these apps and analytics firms offering predictive analytics software to marketing agencies. Combine that with cookies that track your behavior as you browse the web, and larger pools of offline data collected by information brokers, and there’s plenty of information for the right algorithm to work a little statistical magic called network science.

When you sign up for an account on Facebook, it asks for access to your contacts list to help you find your friends along with personal information such as a phone number or email. Even if you opted out of this convenience, if any of your friends had your number in their contacts list, you’re still identified as a potential acquaintance based on your profile’s proximity to theirs within a network called a social graph.

Untangling The Web Of Corporate Surveillance

It’s not just social media giants such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter, in the consumer data business, pretty much any business, industry, or organization that handles large amounts of user data plays a role in digital surveillance.

© Cracked Labs CC BY-SA 4.0

The above infographic comes from “Corporate Surveillance in Everyday Life” a 2017 report from Cracked Labs. The report is well worth a read and provides a comprehensive overview of how different businesses and industries track and sell user data.

Consequences of Constant Surveillance

From social media giants, to financial institutions, credit reporting agencies, and information brokers—the web of corporate surveillance reaches further than most people realize. Corporate surveillance, digital tracking, and profiling of individuals has become the norm. The balance of power between businesses and consumers has swung heavily in the former’s favor, and that comes with consequences.

How to Prevent Pervasive Digital Social Control

Cracked Labs highlights a lack of transparency about corporate data practices as a major contributing factor to the current data ecosystem. With purely economic motives driving the evolution of the digital economy, privacy rights naturally take a back seat.

Fortunately, there are some organizations who are actively working against the current meta of constant surveillance. Here’s a quick list of some of the major players fighting for the individual right to privacy.

Take Ownership Over Your Data

Legislation takes time, and the corporate web of surveillance is already active and tracing your every move. That said, there are still steps you can take as an individual to safeguard your privacy.

  • Master privacy controls. Take advantage of the privacy controls provided by major search engines and social media platforms to limit the amount of information they can collect.
  • Manage your browsers. Clear your history regularly and use the private mode of your browser to stop simple cookies in their tracks. While this won’t stop your ISP or even more sophisticated cookies from tracking your data, it may alleviate some of the creepier ad suggestions you see following you around the web.  
  • Use a VPN. If you wish to mask your activities from your ISP, a properly configured VPN (virtual private network) can do wonders.
  • Build a brand. While there’s no way to fully opt out, you can control how the surveillance network perceives you by taking ownership of your personal brand. Something as simple as being deliberate with the content you choose to like or engage with can go a long way towards controlling your data.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember to be thorough. If you took away one thing from this article or the comprehensive report from Cracked Labs, I hope it’s how pervasive and interconnected the corporate web of surveillance really is. Fail to control privacy on one of the platforms, devices, and browsers you use, and your data will still leak to the others.

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