While we are all doing our holiday gift shopping around town and other places, there’s a reminder we should add to the bottom of our lists. Once upon a time, when we were little children, only Santa Claus knew if we’d been good or bad, or if we picked up all our toys and always played nice. Now, wherever we go during our holiday shopping rounds — and, at all other times, for that matter — we are being watched by Google, Apple, Facebook and whatever apps we have on our smart phones. We also have to be careful what gifts we buy for each other because lots of these gadgets also track us and invade our privacy and mess with our security and freedoms. Do we really want a doorbell that can spy on our neighbors?
Maybe we didn’t mind Santa knowing about our favorite places, hobbies and friends, but it’s different when big tech corporations track our digital footprints, buying habits and personality traits and sell them to other big tech corporations and even to government agencies. That’s not very merry; that’s Grinchy.
So, we better not pout and better not cry, but we could get smarter about how we use all these snooping computer devices. They all have privacy settings we could turn on or off. According to an annual report by the think tank Freedom House, our free speech and privacy declined in the U.S. and globally for the ninth consecutive year. This was caused by foreign and domestic government snooping, Facebook’s policies that allow spreading lies and the unregulated practice of internet sites collecting and selling our private data.
Chances are most of us used one of the following sites or services in recent weeks. These include AAA, Ancestry.com, Amazon, American Express, Apple or AT&T. All of these corporations steal, store and sell our personal habits and privacy to others. This list is huge. We only listed a few names here that begin with ‘A.’ It’s a very long list before we get to Yahoo! Social media like Facebook, Twitter and others allow ordinary people like us to send instant messages to our closest friends or reach millions of others all around the world.
Social media is amazing and all-powerful. But foreign countries, political powers, politicians, robot-driven algorithms and real-life shysters all use these social media platforms, too. This is like getting lumps of coal in our Christmas stockings. We share Facetime chats, shopping trip videos and entertain each other and ourselves. In turn, all our most private habits get processed into ad tracking, location pings and spammed invasions. A New York Times journalist recently asked Google for his private database and Google sent him 400 pages. Included were all his recent search engine queries, Google Doc entries and his complete contact list of names and emails. The data included where he had dined out on a specific night three years ago.
We know Russia messed with our 2016 election, but when anonymous social media actors know what we are doing in our kitchens and bedrooms, more than our democracy is at stake. What we all should wish for this Christmas is a “fixed” social media.
The Freedom House report made several recommendations that we endorse. These include restricting social media surveillance tools, enacting data privacy laws, restricting re-selling of personal databases and requiring social media companies to operate with more transparency and require annual reports.
We might or might not want to block Santa from our web browsings. But we can go to simpleoptout.com and block most of the internet’s and social media’s worst offenders. Just like we lock the doors to our house, we should do the same with all our social media “doors.” It’s OK because only Santa knows his way down the chimney.
— Rollie Atkinson