Privacy : Ever had the feeling you are being followed? You are.

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!

Join the Conversation

  1. Hi Jon,
    Thanks for your concern about my privacy. I’m about 50% there. And currently don’t need a cell phone. I don’t do Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat. I can live without them.
    But, I love Google Maps and can get around their wanting my location all the time. Monetization is a hard road to travel. Keep up the good work.
    MoonDawg

    1. IMHO there is a misunderstanding somewhere that just because companies have access to information that they could use that information and sell it. This has in turn led to companies seeking information that they do not need to perform the services they are providing and building business models around spying on their customers. It can be quite lucrative to build spyware, but so can robbing banks, but that does not make it legal. Just because you can do something does not give you the right to.

  2. At the end of the day, isn’t is possible that big data feeds our military systems? Do those in power (that you seek) have any power to reverse the present course? The audit trail seems to be clear, as the likes of Google/Facebook etc…map to powerful investment banking circles (think about the financial models that justify valuable IPO’s with negative cash-flows etc. These financial circles benefit from quantitative easing. It’s a loop, or even evolution, that cares very little about personal privacy. Perhaps the answer to any push-back will stem from East/West polarities/rivalries.

  3. I am on the same way as previous comment. I don’t want to repeat his comment but I have a question. What do you think about adblockers on mobile such as Blokada for example?

    1. Vlada,

      I am not familiar with Blokade. Personally I feel that we need ads to work on the Internet, just not ad systems that spy on us. We have a lot of wonderful content on the Web and much of it has been ad sponsored. That worked just fine until the large ad companies started to target individuals instead of location. That is where it all went wrong and we need to ban that advertising model.

      Best,
      Jon.

  4. I prefer the generic ads vs the highly targeted ads that are based on everything you do on the web and your location and browser and OS. It gets creepy how much data they get, some of them sell that collected data to other companies.

  5. Does Vivaldi provide better safeguards for its mail service as opposed to GMail, Outlook and Yahoo etc. who do not?

    Also, is there more security from prying eyes in Vivaldi browser compared to “omnipresent” Google Chrome and Edge?

    1. Daniel,

      We do not scan your email for content to sell to advertisers and we do not collect information about your browsing habits, so in many ways it is what we do not do that is more important than what we do. That being said, we will continue to look at ways to keep you safe! Watch this space!

      Best,
      Jon.

  6. I am excited, Mr von Tetzchner, that people like you worry about what is happening right now in the big stores of browsers, operating systems and gadgets of all kinds.

    Personally, there is not much I have to hide and I am afraid that if there is someone interested in doing business with my data, it will be pyrrhic, very pyrrhic, what it gets. Of course, that has not freed me from having, for stupid political reasons of the last Harper government in Canada, poked into one of my email accounts for the sole reason of a criticism that I made for the closure of the external broadcasts of Radio Canada International.

    Certainly, I believe that there are elements of our private life that should be kept away from the databases of the merchants we already know and those who come later.

    One of the first lessons I learned in my childhood was not to see over the shoulder what another person is writing or reading. Writing or reading privately is an inalienable right that belongs wholly to anyone.

    That is precisely what these vulgar and anti-social data merchants do: Look over our shoulders at what does not matter to them.

    Now, Mr. von Tetzchner, when I see between your admirable attitude and courage to write these issues and what has been done so far by Vivaldi, that leaves me the impression that there is a small gap that must be eliminated for the user’s happiness with your browser to be complete

    Indeed, if I accept Vivaldi as it give to me (with the paternal greetings of Google included), I am very much afraid that I will continue to be subject to some of the problems that you point out in your excellent essay.

    Receive my best regards.

    PS / I have been following the development of Vivaldi since its first appearance in public. Contrary to what many feel, I never expected nor expect that your browser is the resurrection of that glorious Opera 12x Presto that all the ‘sopranos’ knew: I am sincere, that Opera also had its ugly maculae, but its size on the hard disk was not more than a quarter part of the space occupied by Vivaldi. In this item, it seems to me, it is impossible to overcome it.

  7. Months ago, a couple of friends and I were talking about certain event on an app, and it turns out that hours later one of them entered a social network and a couple of ads about that “appeared” over and over…

    Thanks a lot for pointing this out in a very precise way that can be shared with others 🙂

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