Tuesday, January 24, 2012

You're the Merchandise

With free apps comes loss of anonymity.

There is a trade-off between the user and the provider of apparently free online applications. It's not implicit because it is built into the EULAs. The wording varies but the gist is pretty much the same: When you sign up for and use the service we're providing, you are giving us information about you that we will use as we see fit for our financial advantage. The EULAs are getting more aggressive these days because the providers are using your data more aggressively.

The two biggies in the news that are sliding in somewhat under the radar due to SOPA garnering the lion's share of attention are Apple's preemptive claim on the revenues of your intellectual property and Google declaring that it will take all of the information it can gather about your use of its various services and will data mine it for detailed information about you. Facebook, of course, has always done this kind of thing and continuously expands its data mining operation.

I'm less concerned by Apple's move than Google or Facebook mostly because they are using it to sell you their stuff and profit off your work directly. They are setting up a classic walled garden, and I don't think they are going to be able to sustain it. The other two (and not just them, this would be true of any service that needs to monetize its data) are not so much selling to you as selling you to others.

You ARE the merchandise.

I've talked about this subject before where I distinguished between government data collection and private industry data mining. In the latest news from Google (which I cynically believe simply is the corp 'fessing up to what it already does),
“If you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services,” Alma Whitten, Google’s director of privacy, product and engineering wrote in a blog post.
“In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience,” she said.
Google can track users when they sign into their accounts. It can also use cookies or find out where people are if they use a Google phone or its maps program. The company will now attempt to mix all of that information together into a single cauldron for each person.
For instance, a user who has watched YouTube videos of the Washington Wizards might suddenly see basketball ticket ads appear in his or her Gmail accounts.
That person may also be reminded of a business trip to Washington on Google Calendar and asked whether he or she wants to notify friends who live in the area, information Google would cull from online contacts or its social network Google+.

The services that you have opted in to use are now being stitched together as a single service that  is anchored by your browsing device(s) - tied to you by that mechanism - and which interrogates the information you freely provide to minutely examine where you go, what you do, who you associate with, and what your next move is likely to be. If this data was severely restricted to use by Google, it would be troubling. Google (or Facebook, or other social networking system) must monetize this data to advertisers and other services providers because that is how they make money while offering it to you for "free". It how they pay their bills, period.

This behavior bothers me far more than SOPA, quite frankly, and SOPA concerns me a lot. While netizens love to scare themselves with paranoid fantasies of being "censored" by the government, they don't seem to take seriously that they are being dissected and tracked by the very companies they rely on to provide them with their soapboxes and organizational tools. These corporations have no interest in censoring you. Quite the opposite. They want you stomping around, ranting and clicking and buying and using and generally leaving huge footprints all over the place.

With this in mind, there is a need for end users to become savvy about how information gets collected and stored and how this aggregated of data is subsequently deployed for fun and profit. If you are online, you are known to some degree. Using services that are designed from the ground up to aggregate and resell your information is something online users must become aware of.

Aggregation of data is both the best and worst aspect of the Interwebz because data is only as significant as the entity that wishes to use it.


1 comment:

D. said...

Well. My political bent is no secret, but I do strive to keep more personal info private (as Darth Vader rumbles, "You have a sister!").

And I still get Viagra ads. (Everybody gets Viagra ads. Babies with email addresses get Viagra ads.) And ads for vast numbers of things I don't or wouldn't use.

I ignore them. Forcefully.

Yeah, I hate being merchandise. What do I look like, a politician?