November 07, 2018
*-- Big Brother's Brother --*
By: Jaffer Ali
(Originally Published: 9/4/2009)
Big Brother in the form of an increasingly powerful government and in an increasingly powerful private sector will pile the records high with reasons why privacy should give way to national security, to law and order, to efficiency of operation, to scientific advancement and the like.
--Justice William O. Douglas
My last article and theme on the immorality of "behavioral targeting" (BT) drew some interesting comments and critiques. I must say I was surprised by some of the comments. Some remarks included personal attacks, some questioned semantic terminology regarding the difference between ethics and morality, while others mostly just wanted to change the topic of discussion.
I obviously must take full responsibility for the shortcomings of my writing. Unfortunately, ideas do not necessarily end up on the page exactly as intended. Our own minds flawlessly plug in what we omit, but readers are left having to fill in the blanks.
Because the topic of the morality/ethics of what we do for a living is of great importance, I will try to clarify for whomever cares to read why BT represents a moral black hole that draws otherwise good people into its sphere.
BT has many different definitions. For the purpose of this article, let's use the FTC definition:
"... the tracking of a consumer's activities online - including the searches the consumer has conducted, the web pages visited, and the content viewed - in order to deliver advertising targeted to the individual consumer's interests."
Now, most marketing professionals understand that huge databases are being built comprising what was originally thought to be anonymous information. In other words, searches, websites visited, content viewed, and even comments left on blogs were originally considered to be unconnected to PII (Personally Identifiable Information).
That original intention and assumption has been rendered inoperative. Even though data may not reside on one server within one marketer's control, with very little effort it is conceded that PII and behavioral data can be matched.
Matched by whom you might ask? Can Google match data to PII? Can ad networks? Can the government?
Soon it will be possible to assert almost continuous surveillance over every citizen and maintain up-to-date complete files containing even the most personal information about the citizen...
The government only needs to subpoena behavioral data from multiple sources to create the fertile grounds for PII matching. Has Brzezinski's "soon" already become a reality? With the collusion between corporations and government becoming more and more apparent, this is not some fantastic conspiracy theory. We have witnessed as my previous article noted:
1) Amazon complying with subpoenas to release transactional purchase history
2) Phone companies turning over phone records
3) Billions of search records turned over to government
The above illustrates the already entrenched practice of the private sector harvesting or collecting information and the government seamlessly obtaining that information. It is a mistake to think that surfing behavior, click stream data, viewed content, etc., will somehow be immune from government subpoenas. Since we already have behavioral data (transactions) being turned over to the government, the die is cast.
BT was not created with nefarious intentions. It was created to advance efficiency of marketing dollars with the intention to provide relevant ads based upon one's profile. That seems innocuous enough.
But as we've seen over and over, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Intentions migrate. There is always the law of unintended consequences. How many purveyors of BT actually thought that the collection of data would be used for government snooping? I bet few thought things through that far.
As a side note, since my last article, Amazon was caught deleting digital copies of 1984 without Kindle consumers' knowledge. It was strangely reminiscent of the "memory hole" envisioned by Orwell where books would simply disappear. In Orwell's vision back in 1949 when he wrote "1984", books were to be incinerated by the government. In 2009, they are deleted with a keystroke by the private sector. Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, to his credit, was moved to apologize.
It may be the case that the government no longer needs to scrutinize our virtual, digital lives. Why? Because our lust for and pursuit of behavioral targeting does it for them. Orwell was worried about Big Brother...but to believe that the scrutiny of every movement, every thought... every behavior is only a government vice is to take leave of one's senses...and turn a blind eye to morality.
Justice Douglas had it right when he saw the twin dangers of government and the private sector assaulting our privacy. BT Marketers would like folks to concentrate on only governmental Big Brother. The subpoena makes this distinction largely moot.
There is no longer a hard edge between government and corporate information. As the bail outs demonstrated, there is barely any such distinction at all. They are merging in an unholy alliance faster than you can say 9-11. Orwell wrote his morality play in 1949. Today, in 2009 we need to examine the morality of the private sector scrutinizing our digital lives.
BT is a methodology that stalks and threatens our private lives. And make no mistake, privacy and freedom are inextricably entwined. As Justice Douglas said, "The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom."
We will leave for another time how it is even conceivable that our loss of freedom, our slavery, becomes suddenly ethical if we opt to wear the chains that keep us enslaved. Until then it is necessary for us to open the debate to the light of day as to whether the very act of digital stalking threatens, indeed violates our dignity. As author Katherine Gerould proclaims: "All violations of essential privacy are brutalizing."
Will we heed her sage advice, or will our greatest fears be realized, perhaps without us even knowing?
Original Article: Big Brother's Brother
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