Surveillance Is the Business Model of the Internet. What's Coming Next?

By In the National Interest Archives
Cover image for  article: Surveillance Is the Business Model of the Internet. What's Coming Next?

National security made strange bedfellows last week when Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and his Republican colleague Senator Tom Cotton wrote to acting national intelligence director Joseph Maguire. Their letter raised national security concerns about TikTok, the widely popular video-sharing app. The issue — the company's possible transfer of personal data to the Chinese government — should make TikTok's American fans sit up and take note. For teens, young adults, and their parents who use the app, however, odds are, if they even noticed, the news provoked a yawn.

The reaction shouldn't be a surprise. It would take a Herculean memory to recall a week when Americans didn't find someone somewhere had invaded their privacy. From never-ending hacks and cyber-thefts to the admission by Google that its YouTube division illegally collected data on children without their parents' consent, reports of cybercrime, security breaches, and corporate overreach have become little more than background noise — rather than red alerts — in daily life on the web.

Intrusions into what once was quaintly considered private life, of course, aren't just online. Along with the cyber-crooks and social media surreptitiously sucking up personal data, there are doorbell cameras videoing front stoops, office badges clocking cubicle time, school security software monitoring students' texts and tweets, and smartphones tracking their owners, to mention only a few. Whether on the street or staring at a screen, who wouldn't be forgiven if they simply surrendered to a surveillance society that watches their every move?

Fortunately, there are some signs that attitudes about privacy are changing. Half of Americans last year said they didn't trust either the government or social media to protect their information. The awareness that Big Tech is playing fast and loose with their personal data is one reason Congress is targeting Silicon Valley's giants. The attention also follows multiple investigations in Europe. Irish regulators who are leading a European Union inquiry will soon make a decision about Facebook, which could be hit for violating new, tougher privacy rules. If fines happen, they won't be penny-ante. In March, Brussels slapped Google with a $1.7 billion penalty — its third in two years — for anticompetitive practices.

Like the European scrutiny of Big Tech, privacy is only one subject on Congress's agenda. Silicon Valley's worry is obvious: on K Street, the line of lobbyists and lawyers schooled in antitrust and regulatory intricacies on Big Tech's payroll already circle the block. Google has spent $10 million on lobbying so far in 2019; it ponied up more than $20 million last year. For its part, Facebook has laid out $12 million since January. With several presidential candidates calling for both companies to be broken up, it's a safe bet that the lobbying crowd will bank even bigger retainers in 2020 to keep Capitol Hill's wolves at bay.

Whether check-writing alone will do the trick remains to be seen. Polling suggests that the privacy issue will be tricky for Congress and companies alike. For instance, the divisions in public opinion about who's behind the growing intrusions into private life cut both ways. For people who think big government is the default demon in their Orwellian-wired world, President Trump also is hard at work fueling their suspicions. More attacks on intelligence agencies and FBI — his mythical "Deep State" enemies — are only one example of his campaigning that could confuse the issue in an election year.

The fact is, despite their power to pry, spies and cops are the wrong suspects to consider for making Orwell's "Super State" come true. What intelligence and law enforcement pull in about Americans pales beside the reach of Big Tech, now making big money playing 1984's Big Brother role. Bad press or not, Facebook, Google, the media conglomerates, as well as the middlemen who purvey Americans' personal data also couldn't be happier. They see dramatically growing opportunities in hoovering up and selling Americans' information. Their business forecasts show why.

The global market in big data, an estimated $189 billion in 2019, is expected to hit $274 billion by 2022. Last year, the United States accounted for half of that total and analysts forecasted double-digit growth rates into the next decade, both here and abroad. To be sure, when it comes to personal data and what it depicts, not everyone cares about an Instagram influencer's cologne choice or who clicks on a congressional candidate's ads. For Dell, IBM, Oracle, and others that provide hardware and IT services, the machines and software that comprise big data's backbone, whether their servers and clouds process pizza sales or an assembly line's widget production, isn't an issue. It's all digits to them.

This is not so for the companies that collect and peddle information on what you buy, eat, watch, or believe and where you do it. Collecting and selling your particulars to advertisers in 2018, by one estimate, represented a total market worth some $210 billion, according to the Data-Driven Marketing Institute. For Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it's not a sideline. As Shoshana Zuboff describes in detail in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, "it's all about collecting data to build products that predict what people will do." Bruce Schneier, a technologist and fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, put it succinctly: Surveillance is the business model of the Internet.

What's coming next from Big Tech is hardly a secret. Take the explosion of data from the Internet of Things: refrigerators that monitor your beer inventory; wired cars that transmit engine performance, including when you speed; and cell phones that track their owners to, say, a political rally. Add those details to current personal profiles from consumer, credit, search engine reporting, and social media. What insurance company wouldn't want to know more about a policy applicant's health habits and driving behavior? Or, if you're a hiring manager, a job seeker's political views?

In any democratic society, defining and enforcing the right to privacy admittedly is complicated. But it's downright impossible when companies dissemble, or worse, deceive their customers about what they do with the information they collect about them.

Who buys personal data and for what purposes aren't questions that should stump Facebook, Google, or myriad other companies that are building businesses around its collection and sale? They also are not irrelevant for Americans who should have a right to accountability as they watch their privacy disappear.

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