A year ago, I was travelling extensively around the world talking about the importance of privacy on the Internet. I spoke fiercely against data collection and targeting of individuals. This is something that has been on my mind for a long time. The erosion of privacy on the Internet is a very significant problem.
During conversations with my friends, they told me how they felt being watched – whether this was from playing Monopoly and seeing ads for Monopoly afterwards or looking at a dress in a store and later seeing ads for the same clothing online.
Are things this bad?
Almost everything we do online is constantly being collected, scrutinized and processed by algorithms. And this has been happening for some time and is increasing. With the addition of logins on your devices – computers, mobile phones, and tablets – you are continually being tracked. Through logins into services such as Google and Facebook, data is thus collected on you, not just on a random device. Even when you are not connected to the Internet, these logins enable the recording of your location all the time.
But things have got even worse – stealthily and silently.
A few years ago we got the Beacons. When we talk about Beacon tracking technology, it all begins with Apple and Google. In 2013 Apple created iBeacon, which is a technology based on Bluetooth. Here is what Wikipedia says about iBeacon:
“iBeacon is based on Bluetooth low energy proximity sensing by transmitting a universally unique identifier picked up by a compatible app or operating system. The identifier and several bytes sent with it can be used to determine the device’s physical location, track customers, or trigger a location-based action on the device such as a check-in on social media or a push notification.”
Google quickly followed suit with the release of Eddystone, a technology similar to iBeacons.
The gates to complete tracking were open.
The most common technology used for tracking location is GPS. Our mobile phones send signals to the local towers, Wi-Fi setups, and Bluetooth devices all the time. With the help of these signals, our movements are being marked on a granular scale. And now with the Beacon technology, we can be followed even more closely, even inside buildings. For instance, when you take a close look at a particular dress in a store, the store knows it and saves all that information.
How does this happen?
While we walk around, our mobile phone listens for and communicates with, any Bluetooth beacons it encounters. The Bluetooth beacons can be placed anywhere – outside in a street, inside a clothing shop, inside a vending machine, or even inside our place of business. Every time our phone walks past one, the beacon knows our phone was there. If someone can collect the data from all of the beacons, they can piece together exactly where we went, and how long we were at each location. This can be used to decide which item in the store we spent the most time looking at – food, magazines, clothes and more.
Some time ago, a story on a Norwegian startup, Unacast, caught my eye. The story was about them getting funding, but the article in question did not go into detail about the services they provided. I decided to read more and found that they were doing something quite interesting and at the same time, scary. This is the way they describe themselves:
“We empower companies to make smarter decisions by providing the most accurate understanding of human activity in the real world through the Real World Graph.”
Still not getting it? Here’s an excerpt from their recent press release:
“Unacast is the first company to enable a scalable way for retailers and brands to retarget customers online based on accurate behavior in the physical space.”
I continued to dig and to my dismay discovered that my old company had been involved in this as well. I am appalled, but not surprised. My old company has changed a lot.
“Opera/Unacast partnership connects advertisers to global beacon data for the first time.”
“Advertisers can now segment and target consumers based on where they went in the real world”.
As a proponent of privacy, I am concerned. Are you – as a user – fully aware of the data collection happening when you walk into a store? And even if you are, do you know what’s being collected?
Companies such as Unacast are making a complete picture of us and our habits by combining our data from both online tracking and real-world tracking, and in many cases, they are succeeding to an alarming degree allowing us to lose all ability to remain private.
In the earlier days, this was called spyware – software that spies on you. Unfortunately, the large companies, such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook all resort to spying on us. They indulge in hyper-targeted advertising based on more and more intrusive personal surveillance. This, in my opinion, is unethical and wrong. Collection of massive information on people should be banned. Our data should be no-one’s business but our own.
Privacy is not something that we should have to justify or argue for – it should be assumed. A default. Only regulation and responsible technological solutions will make privacy possible in its true sense.
And I sincerely hope the authorities can do the right thing and ban the combination of data sources and the trading of customer information. But regulation can take time to come into effect.
The most pragmatic way to protect our own interests then is to boycott companies that indulge in such practices. At the end of the day, the options are there. Taking our privacy back is not as arduous as we think. Be more vigilant and stop regarding technology as only a matter of convenience. The choice is ours – either we get watched and stalked or, we live the lives that we deserve free from constant surveillance.
So are you still wondering if you are being followed? You are. Online and off. And this has got to stop!