When technology becomes our stalker

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - April 27, 2021 - 12:00am

We love the internet for many things, including keeping us virtually connected while we remain quarantined in our homes, but we can also find it nefarious especially when we experience our privacies breached or in extreme cases, our personal information exposed for cybercriminals to take advantage of.

The issue of how technology companies, big and small, are able to collect data on our preferences, habits, beliefs, interests, and biases to use in many ways – like bringing us unwanted advertisements – without our expressed permission can be downright creepy.

Some say it is a small “price” to pay for being able to use the “free” services of, for example, Google or Facebook without shelling out a single centavo. However, when you think about the millions of dollars tech companies on the internet make on your behalf, you end up feeling used.

Advertising revenues on the internet is now the big thing for almost every technology-savvy company and even “self-employed” vloggers. In 2019, for example, Google made $135 billion in digital ad income, a three-fold rise from seven years ago.

Not bad for a two-decades-old company that was founded on the promise that it would be able to comb for information from the internet using search algorithms to help people to acquire knowledge. Somehow, over the years, this mastery of algorithms has been buried by commercial rather than altruistic interest.

Embedded trackers

Almost anything that passes through the internet nowadays get tainted by the conspiracy of trackers that relay our actuations to data brokers that, in turn, pass on harvested data to interested clients, including hostile government agencies.

Trackers have even invaded smart appliances for homes. Our obsession about being able to monitor what happens inside our abodes 24/7 or when we’re not around can become a liability when surreptitious others can also see what we’re seeing.

Smart speakers on your phone, like Alexa or Siri, for example, have been monitored to snoop on your person-to-person conversations. They apparently can track what you’re talking about, if within close proximity, and will transcribe these conversations for use by data brokers.

Those embedded trackers, however, are not all devious in serving their developers’ interests to recover investments or boost earnings. Consumers, however, need to be more informed about what they’re putting through the web, and to decide if such exchanges are indeed beneficial.

Privacy breaches

The pandemic certainly has pushed people’s dependence on the internet these days, causing online banking transactions to rise multiple times as home quarantines force grocery shopping and other commercial transactions to be remotely done.

Likewise, our verbal and written conversations have migrated to the web through video calls and group chats of apps, some of which to date still impose strict privacy rules, but others like Facebook, have been accused of leaking user data.

Strangely, the pandemic has also increased more people’s awareness about the need to protect their privacy. In the US, for example, concern about how big tech is misusing personal data is freaking out more people.

European governments, to date, are ahead in forcing tech companies to be more accountable about protecting users’ privacy, and this is already causing ripples in the industry. Apple, for example, just updated its iPhone software to tell its app makers to get users’ permissions on what tracking information they want to share.

Other more conscientious app developers, like Gabriel Weinberg of the now trending search engine DuckDuckGo, have championed users’ privacy in developing their algorithms. In a US Senate hearing, Weinberg said: “The American people are pretty much tired of being tracked online everywhere they go. They’re tired of the invasive ads, data breaches, discrimination and manipulation.”

Changing ecosystem

Google and Facebook are reportedly preparing for an era where its users will be demanding more safeguards – more than just assurances – that their personal information will remain protected. Consequently, this could mean a future when their earnings would be lower.

With Apple’s recent imposition on its app developers, Facebook and other tech competitors warn of a shift in the mobile ecosystem where digital ads have thrived. Apple’s more than one billion iPhone active owners will need to give permission to enable tracking for the device’s advertising identifier value to rise from base zero.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has said in a recent interview that individuals should be in control over whether they’re tracked or not, and who have their data. The statement, while expressing to champion the rights of consumers, is not sitting well with other companies who accuse the tech giant of serving its own interest.

We really don’t know what the future will bring, and whether companies like Apple and DuckDuckGo will one day buckle down to the temptation of putting earnings over pure intentions to protect their consumers.

The World Wide Web is already 32 years old, and yet the way it has changed and encroached on people’s lives and the business world continues to amaze us.

We are now able to get news happening in the far corners of the world almost instantaneously. Discussions on issues are conducted real time by people across continents without needing to physically meet in a designated place.

And yet, we also live in a dangerous world where cyber attacks on our personal data can cause monetary loss or impugn our self-worth and dignity. Misinformation and disinformation have become 21st century realities that could (mis)shape fates of countries.

We look forward to the day when we know for sure that what we post on the internet will only be for that we intend it to be.

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We are actively using two social networking websites to reach out more often and even interact with and engage our readers, friends and colleagues in the various areas of interest that I tackle in my column. Please like us on www.facebook.com/ReyGamboa and follow us on www.twitter.com/ReyGamboa.

Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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