Thursday, January 23, 2020

Time for a Personal Digital Bill of Rights!


Are you with Me?


I sit here on a Thursday, in Longview, Texas at the Silver Grizzly having coffee, wondering when we the People and all global citizens will say “Enough already!”

First, a bit of history. The British citizens of the original 13 colonies fought the revolution to be freed from the oppression of a remote monarchy that ruled over and taxed the colonies while providing little value for those taxes. The colonists had no ability to represent themselves to the monarchy. Generations of immigrants risked their lives to cross oceans to gain religious and personal freedoms that this country's founding fathers encapsulated into the US constitution; a constitution focused on personal freedom, privacy, and considerable concern to limit the power of a government and the majority to oppress minority citizens. 

We live in an unprecedented time in the USA, where the ‘president’ and many elected officials are more concerned about their own well being than that of the country. We the People who they are sworn to represent, are not receiving the representation the Founding Fathers envisioned. Today’s politicians are mortgaging our children’s future with total disregard of the science that informs us of the dire consequences business as usual will have on the global climate.

Our leadership in Washington is also giving away our digital privacy to the tech companies. Politicians are willing, supportive, and make use the gigantic tech companies’ ability to acquire and (mis)use any and all personal information available to them (à la Cambridge Analytica). We have been led to believe that the conveniences to our lives outweigh the second-by-second tracking we are now subject to. And the misinformation and continual hammering against any opposition is enough to make you turn off the news and stop reading the headlines.

However, all is not without hope; our leadership in Washington face a greater adversary embodied in our constitution. The constitution will prove stronger and better able to protect we the People than the current leadership who have sold out to the lowest bidder. 

Cambridge Analytica is but one of the many intrusive tech companies that gained access to our personal digital / social lives. 

Our predecessors fought against empires that ruled and taxed their citizens without representation or societal benefits; the similarities of late are clear. A new empire has risen up that makes use of a different kind of oppression to intrude into and control our lives. We live in a time in which any privacy or choice regarding how private and personal information is shared with advertisers, the media, government, and law enforcement is fading away. I am concerned more every day that our personal information is given free of cost to Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and others without any real concern about how they use the data and with whom they share our personal information. 

Yesterday I counted the number of cookies in my chrome browser and stopped when I reached 200 just in the "A's". We are told to believe that it is in our best interest to share our purchasing and browsing histories. Privacy policies are held up as the gold standard, but they are actually designed to mislead. Privacy policies are overly long, and hide the truth that in opening our digital lives we empower the Cambridge Analyticas of the world.

Imagine you read the NY Times and USA Today online, and then Dear Abby. In the guise of making your life easier. Each of those sites you visited this morning have installed cookies on your device, and the Googles and Facebooks of the world are also tracking your browsing and digital experience. Those cookies hang around now to try to get you to buy an Oral-B toothbrush or any other item related to your browsing experience. It’s incredible how ads show up in Facebook for things you were discussing or researching in your Google Chrome browser. The digital behemoths are tracking our web experience under the guise of making your experience more "personalized".  This is shorthand for ‘targeted advertising.’ They place tracking cookies to gather data every minute of our on-line lives. They then use that data and sell that data to sell to other interested parties who want more of your dollars.

What the tech companies mean by "personalized" is that the more they keep you online, the more valuable the data of your experience is. The targeted ads they post are charged to the advertisers. Everyone makes money, right? Just not WE THE PEOPLE. The idea that Facebook is free is a myth. We have thrown away any semblance of privacy for no return so that the Facebooks, Googles, and Instagrams of the world can get richer every day. They store, mine and spend a fortune on recommendation engines for ads and products that can be used to manipulate us in to buying more!

So, what did the tech behemoths learn about me today? That I read the NY Times, USA Today, Dear Abby, and donated to Amy Klobuchar's campaign. 

Now I’m receiving digital ads from other democratic candidates, and not one republican. 

Now any group inside or outside of the country can decide that Amy is a threat to their candidate of choice.  That group can now purchase my digital life from the tech behemoths to target me and manipulate me to with fake news to re-position their candidate of choice. Sounds familiar, right?

It might just have happened to you in 2016.

I do wonder why I have agreed to this disregard for my own personal life and safety. 

Let’s talk Amazon.

Amazon tracks data, posts recommendations, and advertises based on the data they collect. Amazon is adept at finding ways to track information about you and me and store it to admittedly use that data for to enrich themselves. Amazon is also using the data to train their AI technology so that they can improve how they can sell you stuff. Think about it, Alexa is always on in the background, listening. If ‘she’ hears you say “Home Depot” & “garden hose” guess what? You’ll soon see Home Depot and garden hose ads in your browser! Your voice queries are stored now on Alexa’s servers.  Supposedly we can opt out of this, but we are highly discouraged against doing so. Alexa warns that her suggestions won't nearly be as good if you did.  The Amazon recommendation engines and services are being sold as services through AWS, so you are not just training Alexa, but are training others as well based on what they learned from your search for a “garden hose”.

Now to the Ring Camera. Your front door has been enlisted to be on constant guard.  Convenient, right?  Nobody will steal that box of toothbrush refills anymore. But what if you wear a tattered robe to put out the trash in the morning?  Once you pass in front of that all-seeing Ring lens, Amazon is surely entertained, and just might suggest that you buy a new robe.   Amazon might just put you in a “Best of Ring Videos Blog” and you are now famous!

So… Ring videos are available to law enforcement. A good thing, right? But is it? Have we just provided Big Brother Government a new tool to impose their power and will over my behavior and others? If your phone rings and you are, say, in the shower. What happens if the phone is in the other room? The camera across the street may be looking at you in the buff. Did you break the law if the towel drops off by accident?

What happens if you put the dog's poop bag in someone else's trash can. Can they now find out that it was you? Is this the type of law enforcement that we want?  What if your kids make a stupid decision as all kids to to, say, toilet paper someone's house. Yes, it is wrong. But do you really want them to be on YouTube for the rest of their lives or arrested for a prank. We have all done things as kids that were not honorable.

So, let’s circle back to the original premise. This country was founded by individuals who were escaping oppression. I believe we are now blindly enabling a new empire to oppress us anew. The new empire is not bound by a county’s borders. The new empire is able to collect private data to manipulate and oppress FROM ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD.

Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple don't have a lock on smart geeks; our own leadership in Washington and other rogue entities around the world have distorted the truth and manipulated us to with our own private data that we give freely away every day. 

While Watergate was a controversy about stealing physical, hard copy data from political offices, is it not just as unacceptable that someone can sit anywhere and steal your information so that it can be used for their candidate with a steady stream of misinformation directed to us?

We would do well to remember that none of digital services are truly free. The price we pay with our personal privacy and protections is too high.  And the risk grows daily as computers become faster at collecting data, and back end servers and AI technologies get smarter at deciding what to do with that data they collect.

We the People would do well to be more aware. We would do well to know how powerful these companies have become. 

Our founding fathers created a bill of rights that added protection of free speech as well as other rights to protect citizens from the government and each other. Free speech, as you can see in the digital world is not really “free” and is populated with includes fake news, that keeps us online while it also attempts manipulate opinions and our own behavior.

Perhaps a Digital Bill of Rights is in order. It could demand basic rights for any digital citizen starting with rights of privacy and protection from our own personal data being shared without our permission to other companies and governments.

Are you with me? 



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