Facebook knows your relationship status, but Google knows when you have sex
Imagine if, twenty years ago, someone had shown you a fancy new pocket sized gadget with a touchscreen that would let you take pictures, surf websites and send text messages to all your friends, but in return, companies could track your every move, see your most intimate photos, read your text messages and listen to your conversations, even ones you have while your phone is not in use.
Most of us would have recoiled in horror, referring to a spinning George Orwell and our right to privacy. Yet, this is exactly what we have embraced.
With the advent of the World Wide Web, software companies soon learned that we users cannot be bothered to read the fine print in any agreement. They could ask for our first born and we would gleefully hit the install button. The convenience of Tweeting and cat videos has outweighed any sense of the need for privacy.
The other day I had a hankering for some unhealthy food so I checked the website of my favourite take-out to see if they were still open. To my surprise, Google maps showed me a graph of the traffic for the restaurant; how busy they were at each hour of the day. For a split second my mind thought “How do they…?” and then it quickly realized that they do it by tracking the physical movement of Android phones, the same way that Google maps can display such accurate traffic.
It seemed a bit creepy to me that Google would track individuals as they enter a specific restaurant, but of course, we let them. It is as if Google has a private detective following our every move. And movement is indicative of behaviour. By tracking the activity on our phones, Google can tell when we sleep, wake, and have dinner (e.g. a phone that goes dormant every weekday evening at 6pm for 35 minutes). The restaurant example tells us that they even know what kinds of food we eat. They track where we shop, watch movies, take the subway, and on and on. Google has more information about your life than you ever will, and unlike you, Google can recall the details long after.
Imagine this scenario: two phones that have never communicated and have no contacts in common arrive at the same singles bar from different parts of town. After a couple of hours of being in close proximity, during which they accessed Facebook and Instagram, one of the phones uses the Uber app and few minutes later both phones leave in the same car, traveling to the apartment of the Uber caller. Upon arrival, both phones go dormant for a couple of hours, then the guest phone sends a few text messages and goes dormant again until the next morning when it Tweets, sends some texts, and calls Uber to go home.
What do you think happened when the phones went dormant?
This is not to suggest that Google is actually tracking everyone’s sex life, just that they have the data if they wanted to. And not just for strangers in bars; the dormant phone(s) could have belonged to a married couple or a person alone after (or while) surfing some adult websites.
And of course, it’s not just Google. Apple or Blackberry or Microsoft can do the same, as can the phone companies themselves.
As if we weren’t giving enough away, the advent of the smart phone has also brought on a tsunami of apps; some of them useful, some entertaining, and many simply redundant. Why should I need a banking app when I can simply put a shortcut to the bank’s webpage on my home screen? Why would a bank, or retailer, or any other organization go through the effort and expense of providing me a free app when I can just as easily get to their mobile website with a simple bookmark? The answer is in that user agreement. In return for the app, they get to track our behaviour. Many apps have access to our contact lists, photos, and messages. Some can even listen in on calls and send messages on our behalf. Because we let them.
And why do they want all of this info? Because they aggregate and sell it to marketers, who can then tailor ads to our preferences. You’ve probably had the experience of looking something up only to have an ad for it show up in a different app. And if you haven’t, you will. This is how free apps can make millions for their creators. There have even been anecdotal reports of advertising appearing for a product that had just been discussed verbally – while the phone was not being used. Some apps can access the phone’s microphone without alerting the user.
As voice recognition and language processing are reaching maturity, developers are scrambling to create more intelligent “chatbot” apps that can understand plain language and perform tasks on behalf of users, such as ordering pizza or booking plane tickets. The goal is to make it easier for us to buy their products, but it also enables them to track our behaviour on a new level.
The creators of Apple’s virtual assistant Siri have created a new platform called Viv, upon which other developers will be able to build bot apps to perform countless mundane tasks. The goal of its creators is to have Viv serve as the universal platform for the plethora of bots that will soon descend on cyberspace. The more we use it, the better it gets to know us and it will learn our habits and preferences. As the “internet of things” develops and all of our appliances and gadgets become interconnected, Viv or its competitors (and there will be many) will be able to compile a rich picture of the details of our lives, creating the holy grail of consumer profiles. The question is, how much of our personal lives are we willing to disclose to marketers for convenience?
I’m sure that if we could attach a generator to poor George, we could power the continent.
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