The American has Nothing to Hide – TFHT19

The Article

“I have nothing to hide” has become the bane of my existence.  I hear this statement uttered all the time, usually after a brief pause of thought after I explain why I prefer to use cash, don’t use shoppers club cards, or don’t sign up to the latest subscription service.  One conversation happened because someone made the comment, “It is impressive how much Google knows”, so I explained how Google knows so much.  There was a slight bit of hesitancy as this person weighed the thoughts, then the stammering reply, “I have nothing to hide.”  Truly, the American has nothing to hide…until we do.

ISPs Alone

Of course I have been speaking on the ISP privacy rules for some time, but this week the Senate passed S.J. Resolution 34 disapproving of the former FCC vote to protect consumer privacy regarding the use of ISP data.  Most of congress is currently siding with the elimination of the rule and the current FCC also against the rule, it appears that our privacy on the Internet is about to collapse.  “But I have nothing to hide…”

The Internet and Us

I can choose not to use the invasive services like Facebook and Google.  I can even block them on my computer so they are totally blind to my visiting a website that uses their respective analytics.  But if I have any access to the internet, I soon will not be able to block the ISP from seeing everything I do on the Internet.  And the Internet contains a lot of data to mine, and in places and ways you may not expect.

First, the Internet is not just how we use Google or Facebook.  The Internet includes every single device we use that connects to the internet.  That device could be a computer or a smart phone.  It could also include any number of IoT devices like security cameras or children’s toys.  Fitness trackers and smart televisions have both been in the news lately for poor privacy policy violations.  A smart light switch or thermostat can even provide interesting data to ISPs.

Second, the Internet is not just the portals, but every single website, every single service.  The ISPs, with these rules removed, can now sell data regarding everything we do on the Internet.  This means if we like shopping on Amazon, that data is sold.  The ISP knows what bank we use and how often we check out accounts.  Our devices, by device ID, can be tracked to an adult or a child, a male or a female based on the websites we visit and the things we do.  If you have ever looked up a medical symptom, they have a buyer for that data, too.  Do you research your hobbies?  The ISP can now sell that data.  They can capture insights about your political views, sexual orientation, or your religious beliefs.  “But I have nothing to hide…”

Beyond the Net

Tracking is not limited to the Internet.  I have talked about tracking offline, and that should concern us just as much.  Remember when specific shopping data was used by a city government to threaten people who bought pet supplies but not a city pet license?  The individual people, by specific name and address, were targeted for a threatening letter merely by their shopping habits.  Shoppers club data is not entirely bad, as Wegmans proved in 2014 when it used such data to alert customers of product recalls.  Regardless, the ability to communicate recalls is not important enough for me to allow the supermarket to track, use, and sell the amount of private data they collect.  After all, I know how to look for recalls.  A balanced view of shoppers club programs can be viewed at Consumer Affairs.

If shoppers club data was not enough, did you know that credit and debit cards also track user shopping?  These cards do not track the specific items, but they do paint a broad brush of where we go, the routes we take, the type of stores we shop.  These taken together can correlate socioeconomic status, proclivity to certain buying habits, and even when and where we will be with startling predictability.  This data is collected by the credit processor, so Visa or Mastercard, etc, and the data is sold to a variety of third parties for marketing analysis.

While shoppers clubs and credit cards paint a broad brush of consumer interaction with products and services, registrations and subscription services give marketers specific data.  Product registrations lets a company know who we are, where we are, and what product we purchased.  If you purchased an item and needed a warranty repair, you likely had to register the product.  The funny thing is that it appears the people who actually registered their computers at some point seem to be those who are getting scam phone calls about fake viruses on their computers.  Likewise, subscription services tell the brokers of that data about your use of the service.  In the case of a streaming service like Netflix, the company can track your movie preferences, or Amazon can track your interests in buying certain items.  Food services like Blue Apron can show some preferences in taste, and likewise.  “But I have nothing to hide…”

Marketing

If marketing were about product education I would be quiet, but that is no longer the purpose.  Advertising has evolved to coercion.  This is not about providing a better user experience, but to provide better targeted advertising.  The whole goal of all this data collection is to probe our weaknesses and inclinations, to push our buttons of temptation. Figure out who will fall to the temptation to spend money to buy the company product, not for the consumer’s betterment, but for the profitability of the company.  The more targeted, the better.  If a company can get us to give up an email address we will find ourselves inundated with coupons and other deals.  Even when we have paid at the grocery store the clerk hands me the receipt and confidently declares “you saved $5.23″…NO!  I SPENT $43.85!  But the store keeps on pushing the savings, pushing the coupons, pushing the ads, probing our inclinations and temptations.  This is not for our better good, it is to sell us products we do not need, and usually to do so on credit.

Risks

This marketing blitz carries bountiful risks.  In America, we have a crisis of spending.  At the highest levels our government cannot control the spending as we spiral out of control toward insurmountable debt.  But our citizens also are in a debt crisis.  Students leave college with an average $35,000 in student load debt, but only 17% can find a sustainable job.  The average car payment in America right now is about $500/mo, and the average household is about $16,000 in credit card debt.  We are spending out of control, but it is not just that cost of living has increased as some suggest (though that is part).  We generally pay a monthly bill for both a phone and a phone service plan.  Frequently we are paying for more data than we need.  Cable TV is ‘only $20 more’ than an internet only plan, but that $20 could go a long way.  I know people who have subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon prime…do we really need all three?  Keeping a handle on spending is key to managing financing, but it goes more farther than this.  We also need to eliminate temptations.

The modern marketing plan is a temptation-based business model.  If the company can get our email, they will send coupons, deals, free shipping codes, anything it takes to get us to buy more.  We did not save the money from that coupon, we spent the amount on the bill.  The only exception is if you had planned to go there in the first place.  But the targeted ads are a different story.  They probe and prod at every part of our psyche until we collapse under the temptation and buy.  The probability of our buying is based on our interests.  Many a people have told me they looked up some product online and then for the next few months saw nothing but that product on every website they visited. That happened because the tracking cookies told the company you viewed a product, so the company starts to target your device ID with that advertising and as you visit the variety of websites, your ID keeps getting served the ad.  The idea is to increase your exposure because eventually you will be worn down and buy the product.  And it works.

Because we are a country short on money, we will borrow the money for many purchases and the result will be credit-powered consumerism where we are so busy buying things based on advertising that only when we look back will we see the amount of wasteful spending we incurred in our life.  Sadly, many people are too busy to look back, and so we march blindly forward into debt, and like our country, we reach insurmountable debt way to late to do much about it.

Hacks

Another risk involved in this data collection is hackers.  No system is hack-proof, and your buying habits can be used against you.  Hackers could easily use this information to verify purchases (a trick some credit card companies use to verify you made a purchase) or to better target you to scams more directly than is currently legal.  Though a lot of the data is anonymized, the sheer volume of data can be assembled to figure out the target of the hack.  Thus, data collection is inherently risky, is not worth the potential benefits, and generally leads to more problems for consumers than it is really worth.

A Word About the Government

When we talk about privacy, we usually hear more about the government concerns than the corporate concerns.  I am not of that camp.  Though I warn against the third-party doctrine, I am still more concerned about what companies do with data.  However, we must be weary of Turn-key Government, which means even if we trust the government today, we may not be able to trust them tomorrow.  If detailed information has been collected and stored about our life, it is possible that data would be used to target specific citizens should a change in government occur.  If the ISP can collect data about everything we do, they can glean our faith, orientation, political views, and more.  If the government decides tomorrow that looking at Christian websites constitutes a hate crime, they could easily subpoena data from ISPs and other companies about who looks at Christian material online.  Of this we need to be weary.

What to Do

There are precious few things we can do to secure our online history.  Most of these were nicely summarized in an Ars Technica article:

  1. Use encrypted websites – If the website is encrypted you will see the padlock in the url bar and the website will be https:// to access.  This means the site traffic is encrypted.  Your ISP can see the website you visit, but not the actual data being transmitted.
  2. Use VPN – Though VPN was created to connect to remote servers, it does encrypt the data being sent.  Your ISP can see you are connected to the server, but it cannot see the data being transmitted to the servers.  The down side is now the VPN company has access to all of the information we are trying to hide from the ISP, and companies are still less regulated, particularly if you use a VPN in a foreign country.
  3. Use Tor – This can increase scrutiny to your online traffic but it does a good job of hiding internet traffic.  Tor is also much slower than your regular internet.
  4. Scramble the data – It is possible to deploy a bot from your server that will randomly scrape website data.  This will introduce too much data and the ISP will not be able to clearly identify your data from the bot.

Offline strategies are a little easier:

  1. Use cash as much as possible – This reduces the tracking of spending habits and locations available to advertisers.
  2. Do not sign up for shoppers club cards – Most stores still let you get the discounts if you  ask for a store card at the register.  If they do not, see if there is another store you can shop at.  I hear some people talk about saving on gas (common with cards) – See if there is a gas station in town giving discounts for paying cash – they usually offer bigger savings than those you can get with a shoppers club card.
  3. Do not give a company your email unless you really, really want to hear from them.  This is their more direct and successful method of marketing.
  4. Minimize or eliminate subscription services.

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