Say goodbye to privacy

In an article titled The Big Tech Extortion Racket in the September 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Barry C. Lynn discusses how much information Facebook and Google have on us and how their renting out this information to anyone willing to pay results in us being exploited. He says that by rolling back the anti-monopoly protections that had been in place, Congress has given them enormous power over the digital marketplace.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Robert Bork, Richard Posner, and other neoliberal Chicago School legal scholars set out to overturn America’s antimonopoly regime, targeting the traditional prohibitions on discrimination that common carrier laws had established. Their scholarship later played a major role in the writing of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. In that bill, Congress simultaneously exempted internet platforms from any responsibility to police the content on their sites, and failed entirely to impose on them any requirement to provide equal and just service to all who depend on their networks.

As a result, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and other platforms were free to develop business models that treated every seller and buyer—every citizen—differently. These corporations exploited this license to the fullest, and have used their power to reorganize entire realms of human activity. Amazon, Google, and Facebook match individuals to specific shoes and clothes, specific restaurants and hotels, specific movies and music, specific jobs and schools, specific drugs and hospitals, specific sexual partners, and even specific books, articles, speakers, and sources of news.

These companies are the most powerful middlemen in history. Each guards the gate to innumerable sources of essential information, services, and products. Yet thus far no governmental entity in the United States has signaled any intention of limiting the license these corporations enjoy to serve only the customers they choose to, at whatever price they decide.

The power they have over us is derived from all the information they gather on us, and it is massively comprehensive.

In 2018, an Irish technologist named Dylan Curran downloaded the information Google had collected about him. All in all, Curran found, the corporation had gathered 5.5 GB of data on his life, or the equivalent of more than three million Word documents.

In addition, Curran discovered that Google keeps a detailed record of what events he attends and when he arrives, what photos he takes and when he takes them, what exercises he does and when he does them. And it has kept every email he has ever sent or received, including those he has deleted.

In an article, Curran describes in detail the mind-boggling amount of information that Google has on all of us and the ways they collect it. He provides links so that you can see for yourself everything you’ve searched on and deleted, all the apps you’ve used, your YouTube history, and so on. He also details the kinds of things that Facebook has on you. I hardly ever used Facebook and closed my account some years ago but I would not be surprised at all if they have found other ways to collect data on me.

He also points to the way all this data can be abused.

They also have every image I’ve ever searched for and saved, every location I’ve ever searched for or clicked on, every news article I’ve ever searched for or read, and every single Google search I’ve made since 2009. And then finally, every YouTube video I’ve ever searched for or viewed, since 2008.

This information has millions of nefarious uses. You say you’re not a terrorist. Then how come you were googling Isis? Work at Google and you’re suspicious of your wife? Perfect, just look up her location and search history for the last 10 years. Manage to gain access to someone’s Google account? Perfect, you have a chronological diary of everything that person has done for the last 10 years.

This is one of the craziest things about the modern age. We would never let the government or a corporation put cameras/microphones in our homes or location trackers on us. But we just went ahead and did it ourselves because – to hell with it! – I want to watch cute dog videos.

One thing that struck me is that 5.5 GB of data for each person is a helluva lot. No wonder they have vast arrays of servers to store all that data. It should not be surprising that these consume a huge amount of energy. How much? About 5 kWh per GB if it is stored in the cloud. It is far more energy efficient to store the data on your own computer but then it ceases to be portable and also one has to find alternate means of backing up.

A Carnegie Mellon University study concluded that the energy cost of data transfer and storage is about 7 kWh per gigabyte. An assessment at a conference of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy reached a lower number: 3.1 kWh per gigabyte. (A gigabyte is enough data to save a few hundred high-resolution photos or an hour of video.)

Compared with your personal hard disk, which requires about 0.000005 kWh per gigabyte to save your data, this is a huge amount of energy. Saving and storing 100 gigabytes of data in the cloud per year would result in a carbon footprint of about 0.2 tons of CO2, based on the usual U.S. electric mix.

Assuming that they have 5 GB of data on each person stored in the cloud, that creates a carbon footprint of about 0.01 tons of CO2 per year. For the entire US population of about 300 million, that works out to 3 million tons of CO2 per year, just to store everyone’s personal data.

Although I am not on any of the major social media platforms, I use the internet a lot and there is no question that to these big tech companies, my life is an open book.


  1. says

    Privacy has only historically been a privilege of the powerful. Even the US founding fathers only meant it for themselves; workers live in crowded tenements and senators in gated mansions. Peasants have never had privacy. They don’t need it. The powerful do, because if the peasants saw how well they live it’d be pitchforks and torches and guillotines.

  2. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Much of privacy is gone, but some of it remains. You can tweak your own data footprint by filtering out some of your activities. For example, in Firefox there are add-ons like Facebook Container that block FB’s trackers, and uMatrix can weed out all sorts of suspicious sites and functions (cookies, scripts, etc). At best your footprint may look so biased that is rejected as flawed.

    The table uMatrix generates is pretty interesting. If you allow the blocked sites, there will usually be a new bunch of blocked sites. Also at FtB. I wonder if your management knows them all?

  3. John Morales says

    About 5 kWh per GB if it is stored in the cloud.

    Um, should that not be energy per unit of time — that is, power?

    From context, that’s a yearly energy figure.

  4. says

    Whenever you see a traditional advertisement — on TV, in a newspaper or on a billboard — everyone else who looks at it will see the same advertisement. And there are certain regulatory channels in operation. As well as an official channel, with a requirement for advertisements to be legal, decent, honest and truthful, there is also an unofficial channel: ordinary people seeing an advertisement that has something wrong with it are likely to comment out loud.

    Facebook advertising, which is individually targeted, makes an end run around both the official and unofficial regulatory channels. If you have a list of knuckle-dragging Sun readers, you can make an advert that is overtly racist, misogynistic, ableist, homophobic, transphobic or promoting batshit conspiracy theories, and show it only to those people, not letting it go anywhere near the Advertising Standards Authority. Of course, you are also keeping it out of the sight of anyone who believes in equality.

    But everyone is already used to traditional advertisements; and even if you know how targeted advertising works, it’s very hard to shake the feeling that everyone else must be seeing the same advert.

    And when your Sun / Daily Mail reader sees your obnoxiously offensive advertisement, and does not hear any complaints from “blue-haired snowflakes”, you have won him over. Emboldened him. The advert can’t be racist, because nobody is complaining about it being racist! That kid even said the P-word out loud, for crying out loud, and nobody said a dicky bird!

    That’s how Brexit was won.

  5. lanir says

    In general every time you see the icon for twitter or facebook they know you’re looking at that page. Not just that site, that specific page. Google takes a bit more work to find. There are a number of options for filtering these places out because this has been going on for some time. If you recall hearing about the Big Data concept in the news that was them putting a smiley face on the computing capabilities they use to spy on us. Sure, some places use those ideas to research climate models but realistically… I’d bet it only has a slightly better track record than antiterrorism laws in the US -- which is to say it got used at least once for something that wasn’t awful and completely unrelated to it’s marketing.

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