Many people still think their smartphones are listening to them in secret—recording their conversations in the background, then uploading them to Facebook or Google surreptitiously. Facebook has been accused of the practice more than others, probably because its services (including Instagram) are so popular and ads are so easy to spot. The company denies doing so every time, and researchers have shown it to be technically infeasible, too. But the idea still persists.
It persists because it feels true, and also because it is true, by the spirit if not the letter. Facebook and Google might not literally be listening in on our conversations, but they are eavesdropping on our lives. These companies have so much data, on so many people, and they can slice and dice it in so many ways that they might as well be monitoring our conversations. Traveling out of town and searching for restaurants? It’s not just that Facebook or Google knows where you are and what you’re searching for, but also if you’re a foodie or a cheapskate, if you’ve “liked” Korean hot pot or Polish pierogi, and what your demographics say about your income, and therefore your budget.
Tech companies do collect data in unexpected, and sometimes duplicitous, ways. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica catastropheoffers one example. More recently, a report based on research at Vanderbilt University suggests that Google collects or infers vast quantities of information about its users, based on their web browsing, media use, location, purchases, and more—sometimes even absent user interaction. Location data was particularly voluminous, with Android smartphones conveying a user’s position in space more than 300 times in a 24-hour period—even if the user has turned off location history in the device’s Google settings. The study also shows that the “incognito” mode in Google’s Chrome browser, which promises to hide a user’s information from websites while browsing, still makes it possible for Google to connect those supposedly hidden visits to its own, internal profile of a user.
Revelations like these have spawned a class-action lawsuit against the company, and it’s tempting to imagine that oversight, regulation, or legal repercussions might eventually discourage or even change the way tech companies collect and manage data. This hope jibes with the ongoing “techlash” that has consumed the sector for the past year or more. But it also ignores the fact that Google and Facebook’s data hunger takes place within the context of a widespread, decades-old practice of data intelligence.
For years, companies slurped up, bought, and sold that data to hone their marketing and sales efforts. But with the rise of big tech firms, the stakes changed. Data collection’s secret grift globalized, and centralized. Now a batch of computer dorks know everything you say, do, dream, and desire—even the stuff you’re too ashamed to admit to yourself. Data brokering used to be a somewhat disgraceful, shadowy business. Now it’s mainstream. The tech companies are not ashamed of the empires they have built, or the means by which they have done so. Instead, they relish the profits they reap from the remnants you have left behind, and they do so out in the open. The only thing worse than a bandit acting out of spite is one who feels nothing at all as he plunders your secrets.