The World Forum - May 20th, 2024


Your phone isn’t snooping on you, but it is tracking you


It’s silly, I know, but I cannot shake the suspicion that my phone is listening to me. It seems every time I mention that I am interested in something — a car, a set of pans, a fleece jacket — ads for those things seem to magically appear.

In truth, it is highly unlikely my smartphone is snooping on me. The much-discussed urban legend has, at least as far as we know, been disproved by curious media and security researchers alike.

But then again, so many things that once seem far-fetched are, in fact, true. The ads you see pop up on Google, Facebook and elsewhere are served to you by tracking what else you look at and search for, and which of an array of categories you fall under. That personalization of advertising is now the economic backbone of the web, the very reason those companies rake in billions of dollars every quarter. If I’m a little irrationally paranoid about being spied on, it’s only because it can be hard to distinguish what is fantastical from what is true.

This is the Faustian bargain we have made to live in a world where you can keep in touch with people halfway around the world or search for anything for free. Yet while many feel like that is an acceptable tradeoff — I give you some of my data, you give me digital services for no cost — when you build surveillance technology, it isn’t so easy to know what happens to the information we hand over.

Consider this chilling fact: “Vice” recently reported that a division of the Iowa National Guard bought access to location data from ordinary apps. That same company performs surveillance, reconnaissance and carries out drone strikes overseas. Put another way: the surveillance built into our phones can lead not just to tracking for ads, but also to being tracked by airborne killing machines.

That is the structure of what Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism: An economic model predicated on tracking users that generates enormous revenue, but that also creates massive databases of information about people. That data is mostly used to make money, but is then occasionally also fed into systems controlled by police, the military and the state.

This isn’t theoretical. Intelligence and police agencies routinely track social media, not just for activity by groups such as ISIS, but also legitimate political activists. The creation of surveillance infrastructure then leads into other forms of observation. The RCMP has used an eavesdropping device that intercepts mobile phone data. The equipment initially deployed for anti-terrorism was used to spy on Black Lives Matter activists. Tech gets looped into structures of authority, and it’s usually the marginalized who bear the brunt of its effects.

The point is not that technology is evil and inherently linked to destructive things. We have been here before, at least in spirit. It is hard, for example, to separate heavy industry from the machine of war, or indeed digital technology from increasingly sophisticated and destructive weapons. But so much would be lost by getting rid of these technologies entirely. Just as simply doing away with industrial factories would rob us of the many material comforts of our lives, it is both naive and retrogressive to hope for the end of digital networks and services — that we’d just be better off without the internet or social media.

Instead, the only thing that curtails the harmful use of these technologies is agitation by the public and action by governments, that collectively, as a society, we decide what we want and do not want from the technologies that form the bedrock of modern life.

Still, even that traditional democratic ideal has its limits; after all, for as long as there are economic or political incentives to build surveillance architecture, people will do it.

What makes this situation all the more challenging is the seeming impossibility of alternatives. We still want ways to connect with friends and family all across the world, but without having to enable a regime of spying to get it. The only way we might get that is to imagine something outside of traditional capitalism. Think more Wikipedia, less Facebook.

It would be easy to resort to the usual platitudes: we the people must resist. But laying blame at the feet of individuals for things that are the effect of broad systems, large corporations, and slow-to-react governments is an ill-fated approach, like yelling at clouds because you don’t like the weather.

Systemic change has to come from the systems themselves, and the only way that happens is for people in power to recognize the deep flaws in what we have created and actively decide to rein in how technology is used. No your phone isn’t spying on you, but it is tracking you — and that simple fact should be sufficient for governments to say that enough is enough.