This article in The Guardian on corporate technological exploitation is informative and relevant. I disagree with the journalist when he says that people are near powerless as consumers, however. Consumer action should be viewed as linked with political action, and boycotting companies has been shown to make a difference in the past.
There are billions of people who are not yet online too, so the idea that there’s little surface data to exploit is also incorrect. And for people in a free society with relative privilege especially, it’s entirely possible to avoid Facebook and still use the Internet well. I understand what the journalist is trying to say, however, and the contributions to this realm of corporate exploitation are important.
Silicon Valley is an extractive industry. Its resource isn’t oil or copper, but data. Companies harvest this data by observing as much of our online activity as they can. This activity might take the form of a Facebook like, a Google search, or even how long your mouse hovers in a particular part of your screen. Alone, these traces may not be particularly meaningful. By pairing them with those of millions of others, however, companies can discover patterns that help determine what kind of person you are – and what kind of things you might buy.
These patterns are highly profitable. Silicon Valley uses them to sell you products or to sell you to advertisers. But feeding the algorithms that produce these patterns requires a steady stream of data. And while that data is certainly abundant, it’s not infinite.
A hundred years ago, you could dig a hole in Texas and strike oil. Today, fossil fuel companies have to build drilling platforms many miles offshore. The tech industry faces a similar fate. Its wildcat days are over: most of the data that lies closest to the surface is already claimed. Together, Facebook and Google receive a staggering 76% of online advertising revenue in the United States.
To increase profits, Silicon Valley must extract more data. One method is to get people to spend more time online: build new apps, and make them as addictive as possible. Another is to get more people online. This is the motivation for Facebook’s Free Basics program, which provides a limited set of internet services for free in underdeveloped regions across the globe, in the hopes of harvesting data from the world’s poor.
But these approaches leave large reservoirs of data untapped. After all, we can only spend so much time online. Our laptops, tablets, smartphones, and wearables see a lot of our lives – but not quite everything. For Silicon Valley, however, anything less than total knowledge of its users represents lost revenue. Any unmonitored moment is a missed opportunity.
Amazon is going to show the industry how to monitor more moments: by making corporate surveillance as deeply embedded in our physical environment as it is in our virtual one. Silicon Valley already earns vast sums of money from watching what we do online. Soon it’ll earn even more money from watching what we do offline.
Surveillance can transform any physical space into a data mine. And the most data-rich environment, the one that contains the densest concentration of insights into who you are, is your home.
That’s why Amazon has aggressively promoted the Echo, a small speaker that offers a Siri-like voice-activated assistant called Alexa. Alexa can tell you the weather, read you the news, make you a to-do list, and perform any number of other tasks. It is a very good listener. It faithfully records your interactions and transmits them back to Amazon for analysis. In fact, it may be listening not only your interactions, but absolutely everything.
Putting a listening device in your living room is an excellent way for Amazon to learn more about you. Another is conducting aerial surveillance of your house. In late July, Amazon obtained a patent for drones that spy on people’s homes as they make deliveries. An example included in Amazon’s patent filing is roof repair: the drone that drops a package on your doorstep might notice your roof is falling apart, and that observation could result in a recommendation for a repair service. Amazon is still testing its delivery drones. But if and when they start flying, it’s safe to assume they’ll be scraping data from the outside of our homes as diligently as the Echo does from the inside.
No reasonable person would let the mining industry unilaterally decide how to extract and refine a resource, or where to build its mines. Yet somehow we let the tech industry make all these decisions and more, with practically no public oversight. A company that yanks copper out of an earth that belongs to everyone should be governed in everyone’s interest. So should a company that yanks data out of every crevice of our collective lives.