Tech giants flirt with a trust backlash

In the wake of high profile leaks, the tide is turning against companies and governments who track our online movements endlessly. By collecting it all, big companies risk losing.

Private Bradley Manning faces 136 years behind bars after being found guilty of perpetrating the biggest leak of classified information in US history, to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. 

Edward Snowden spent 40 days in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport trying to find a safehaven outside the US after fleeing the country to leak information about PRISM – a covert operation between the US National Security Agency, the FBI and pretty much every tech company you use on a daily basis.

Snowden says he has no regrets despite his ominous new life trying to evade US authorities who want to bring him home and try him like Manning. Snowden believes people deserve to know that since 2007 the US government has been able to reach out to the likes of Facebook and Google and retrieve every possible piece of information about you that you can think of.

But how much do people really value their privacy on the internet and how many expect it?

A July poll by the Pew Research Center found that 70 per cent of Americans believe the government is using data collected through the PRISM system for purposes other than investigating terrorism. A quarter believe the government is using PRISM to listen to their phone calls and to monitor their emails.

More than 47 per cent of Americans believe that anti-terrorism surveillance programs, such as PRISM, go too far and are endangering their civil liberties. 

That poll marked the first time that people have expressed more concern about the threat to their civil liberties than protection from terrorism since Pew first asked the question in 2004. And it is not an anomaly. Recent HuffPost/YouGov and NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls showed a similar uneasiness about the potential reach of government into people’s private lives.

The tech companies insist they shield users from unwanted government intrusion but can’t deny that they profit from sharing your private information with advertisers. Google pulls in $50 billion a year through advertising alone.

With the convenient illusion of online privacy shattered for many over the past few months, it made me wonder how much information these companies had on me and what information would leave me feeling violated if it was shared with the US government.

Anyone can access www.google.com/dashboard to view what information Google has on you.

I found everything from the three Android phones I had synched to my computer since moving to the US in 2011, as well as the last web search I performed, last image I saw, last video I watched, and the last map that I looked at.

It showed the last email I received and sent, documents I had opened as well as meetings, stored credit card details and the last instant chat I had with a friend in March, including all 42 lines of our conversation.

Given that every Google user is generating hundreds of thousands of data events every hour this information is just the tip of the iceberg.

Google is better than many of their counterparts in disclosing what information it has on the 425 million users of its Gmail service and allows you to block them from hitting you with targeted ads.

Facebook is less forthcoming with its 1.15 billion active monthly users and has more of your personal information attached to your name. That is important because it is far more attractive to advertisers, which was seen in Facebook’s recent earnings results when the company posted a 61 per cent jump in advertising revenue from the same quarter last year (or a cool $US1.6 billion just in the three months to June).

A free search from website Wolfamalpha told me more about my Facebook usage than I could have imagined.

Apparently 48 per cent of my Facebook friends are married, 57 per cent are female and 73 per cent are living in Australia.

It knows I use the words ‘new’ and ‘building’ the most and that my old housemate Xavier and my current housemate Melissa are most likely to comment on what I put on Facebook and also most likely to share it with others.

It knows that my university friend Babs and I share the most mutual friends and that my friends Pauly and Claire in Perth live the furthest away from me.

The big tech giants are starting to understand that people find it disconcerting to have so much personal information accessible to governments.

Our digital fingerprints are everywhere and the ‘cookies’ that they leave behind remain available to retrieve years later.

Surely the answer is to have a 'Do Not Track' register in place for those who want to opt out. About 20 per cent of web users already use this functionality in their browsers and some companies like Twitter and Pinterest have pledged to honour Do Not Track requests. But as long as there is no standard in place these companies are simply making their own rules as to the type of tracking activity they will stop.

Recent efforts to establish such a standard in the UK failed with Jonathan Mayer, the head of The Cookie Collective, resigning last month after 18 months of being unable to get advertisers and privacy advocates to find any common ground.

If advertisers are raking in big bucks by knowing our preferences to everything, and the tech companies are making billions by providing advertisers with access to those preferences then users should have a say in determining what ‘Do Not Track’ means to them.

Ultimately it is in the interest of businesses to answer these concerns and meet the needs of users because those that don’t have the trust of their customers will find it impossible to achieve sustainable growth.

Mathew Murphy is a Walkley Award winning journalist based in New York.

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