THE WORD “surveillance” can conjure up amorphous images of shadowy activities: spies locked in clandestine combat, security forces keeping tabs on anyone they deem dangerous. But surveillance also applies to governments knowing where your gym is and multinational corporations monitoring your shopping habits. Just thinking about how gargantuan the players are can leave you feeling powerless, insignificant—or a little of both.
The idea that these faceless organizations care about your penchant for scouring Etsy for the softest alpaca yarn (uh, just an example) can seem somewhat absurd. You commute to work, order takeout, hang out with family and friends, and generally lead a fairly normal, uneventful life. But they do care. Where you see basic information about yourself, they see dollar signs—a lot of them. Ad tech companies collect 72 million data points on the average American child by the time they’re 13, and Facebook alone is rumored to track 52,000 data points per user. They sculpt all of that info into a unique profile that companies can use to get you to buy stuff. What can you do about it? They have millions, even billions of dollars in resources, and you barely have the time and energy to work out three times a week. Well, there’s actually a lot you can do.
You are not insignificant
It’s easy to think that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Tech companies have even implied that wanting to keep things to yourself means those things may be wrong. In 2009, when a CBS journalist asked then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt whether people should treat the company as their best friend, he famously replied: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Putting aside the fact that this assertion is patently wrong in the physical world—who wants someone watching them in the bathroom?—it implies we have no right to privacy at all in the digital world.
A lack of privacy only helps the powerful: The digital bread crumbs you leave behind as you putter around the internet are a coveted delicacy to corporations. They can use it to make lots of money off you—whether they’re targeting you with ads or selling your information to other companies and data brokers, which may share those details with anybody who’ll pay them, including governments and law enforcement agencies. But getting you to spend money on things you probably don’t need may be one of the most benevolent uses of your data. Tomorrow, your location may give away how fast you drive, increasing your car insurance payments, and your smartwatch data might be interpreted as proof of poor health, limiting your access to vital healthcare.
No matter how boring you think your life is, everything you do leaves a valuable data trail that’s actually more of a web. We live in a highly interconnected society where each of us is a node in an intricate network that blankets the world; that means it’s not just your data you’re sharing when you geotag your Instagram photos or give your contacts to any app that asks for them. Your data web includes you, but also the people around you—people who may not spend much time online, and even folks who have gone to great lengths to protect their own privacy.
Knowing that, you start to see the unrelenting push to share everything in a new light. The countless engagement options—such as emoji reactions, likes, comments, reposts, and even blocking—are also tools for apps and services to collect as much information as possible.
You are not powerless
With all the ways governments and corporations have to collect your data, protecting it might seem futile, especially if you haven’t given privacy much thought until now. Many of us who witnessed the dawn of social media didn’t know any better, and we ended up with embarrassing email handles and our entire college experiences memorialized on 60-photo Facebook albums posted by people we haven’t thought about since 2009 (uh, again, just an example). Even today, it’s all too easy to get excited about the latest shiny social toy as we share our every move with a sea of strangers online. So give up—they’ve got you, right? No. It’s never too late to fight back.
Take your dusty Facebook photos: For starters, you are not the same person you were a decade ago. You don’t like the same things, and your spending patterns have probably changed a lot too. If someone tried reaching you at the phone number you used to create your accounts back then, it’s possible a complete stranger would pick up the call. So just like the contact list on your old bedazzled Razr, that data is largely useless to Big Tech.
Even a tweet, purchase, or upload you make today has an expiration date. The data you create now and in the future—the things you buy, where you go, where you get your information, the podcasts you listen to, the apps you download, the columns you read—is data you can do something about.
Not caring about what corporations or other potentially nefarious unknown parties do with your data is not an option. Data nihilism only puts us all on the worst end of a shitty deal. Day in and day out, we read about new glitches in app codes and unintentionally open backdoors, and we even welcome deliberately voyeuristic platforms that peep into our lives without our knowing. It’s scary enough to know how dangerous data can be today, but it’s even scarier to think about all the ways your information could be used to track and manipulate you in the future.
And at a time when we’re overly primed to be polarized in our opinions—from our response to viruses to our hot takes on the latest Marvel movie—protecting our privacy is a battle that calls for all of us. We must join in a collective effort to protect it.
We created this column, The Opt Out, to empower you to take back control of your data. If you don’t know where to begin, this is the starting line. In the coming months, we’ll be looking into how to protect your kids’ data when their school’s apps and programs are just as hungry as everything else, and how (if at all) providing false inputs can help you access what you want without giving away your personal details. We’re on this privacy journey together and, hopefully, your information will be a bit safer every month.
We hope you enjoyed The Opt Out, a new monthly column from PopSci+. Check back in September for the next in this series.