Someone Is Watching You

facebook privacy policyPeople say that Santa knows who’s been naughty or nice. I’m not so sure.

I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason to the goodies that Santa gives out. Lately it seems that the least deserving people, the people who already had a lot and then made a lot more while screwing up the economy for the rest of us, have been getting the biggest Christmas bonuses.

Maybe it’s best that Santa doesn’t know so much about us. Even jolly old St. Nick might be seduced by such knowledge, withholding gifts from some people and playing favorites with others, taking bribes, making threats. Pretty soon the North Pole would be overrun with lobbyists, pursuing their own special interests. The elves might break into political parties: Better Goodies for the Good versus the North Pole Equality Party. Lobbyists plus parties mean corruption.

Any systematic peeking into our daily behavior, combined with collecting data about our personal beliefs and desires, would threaten our freedom. We must always be vigilant that government does not spy on us, as it did so broadly in the 1960s, and as the Patriot Act continues to allow today. But we are worrying about the wrong snoopers. Right now we are being spied upon on a grand scale unimaginable a few years ago. Not by the government, but by the real Big Brother, Big Brother Computing.

Facebook collects information about what its 800 million members are doing on their computers, even when they are not on Facebook. The “like” and “recommend” buttons on countless other websites act like little cameras, even if you don’t click on them, recording what you do and sending that information back to Facebook Central.

Until they were caught doing it about a year ago, Facebook collected information from everyone this way, whether they were a member of Facebook or not. Facebook stopped only when this became public knowledge, saying it was a “bug”. That’s for sure – it was a like a billion bugged phones all over the world, listening in on people’s lives.

Actually the “bugs” of Big Brother Computing are far more sophisticated than the little devices that spies put on each other’s phones. I discovered that the first time I tried to use Windows Media Player (WMP), after the newest version of Microsoft’s operating system was installed on my computer. Microsoft recommended that I “Make Windows Media Player the default program for playing media, automatically download usage rights and media information to update your media files, and send usage data from the Player to Microsoft.”

steve hochstadt

Here is what that means, according to Microsoft’s own “Privacy Statement”. Under the guise of bringing “you the performance, power and convenience you desire in your personal computing,” WMP records “what you play and how often you play it,” among lots of other personal information. Then information from WMP “may be combined with information obtained through other Microsoft Services.” It is all shared among Microsoft’s “subsidiaries and affiliates”, and stored and processed in “any country in which Microsoft or its affiliates, subsidiaries, or service providers maintain facilities.” Your personal information, collected each time you get online, is spread all over the world. Your computer becomes an extension of the Microsoft Empire. It sends them information about what you do and they put information that they create on your computer.

Facebook is even more clever: it not only knows what you do, but what you look like. Facebook has become adept at recognizing faces. If you post a photograph to your page, Facebook will compare the faces on it to its vast storehouse of data, enabling it to “suggest” identities for the people it recognizes. Depending on what the photographs show, Facebook might well know if you’ve been naughty or nice.

The volume of data that Facebook and Microsoft collect would have been unthinkable before recent advances in computer technology. Unprecedented numbers of computers all over the world rummage through gazillions of data bits at unprecedented speed to figure out what you are playing, who is in your photographs, what you have bought, whom you correspond with.

Google might be the world’s spymaster. Google also has +1 buttons that watch our internet activities. Through its “free” gmail program, Google reads the content of your emails, looking for keywords that it can link to ads which will be displayed on your screen. Through photographs of every street, through control of millions of gmail accounts, through YouTube, and through the new services that are constantly being offered, Google can put together in one dossier your name, address, phone numbers, email traffic, and video watching. Google Health will store all of your medical records, prescriptions, and test results in one convenient place. Convenient for you and convenient for them.

Steve HochstadtGoogle and the others are just trying to make money. They use your information to sell you goods more efficiently, or they sell the information to others. They promise not to abuse your privacy. But they already have. “Bugs” in their systems, inadvertent releases of data, the possibility of hacking, and most dangerous of all, their greed, have made privacy a thing of the past.

So you better be good.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives 

Published by the LA Progressive on December 19, 2011
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."