Oct. 9, 2007
UI professor: more technology means less privacy
Innovations like Google, TiVo, iTunes and GPS-equipped phones can be handy, but they also force users to forfeit some privacy, a University of Iowa professor warns in his new book, "iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era."
Author Mark Andrejevic, associate professor of communication studies in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says that the data trail left by technology users allows public and private monitoring agencies to track users' locations, preferences and life events for purposes including consumer marketing, targeting groups of voters for campaigns, background checks and government surveillance.
In his book, published this month by the University Press of Kansas, Andrejevic explains how even more personal details could be gathered with future technologies that would be marketed as conveniences -- like a "smart suit" that guides us to our favorite stores in the mall, glasses that recognize people we've met, or devices that track our performance in a workout. He advises people to curb their enthusiasm for such technologies -- at least until the privacy laws catch up.
"I worry about the ways in which information is increasingly being gathered in an asymmetrical fashion: government and commercial entities know much more about what we're doing than we know about what they're doing," Andrejevic said.
"All too often, legislation has been reactive. It's true that technology moves fast, but it's not hard to anticipate what's coming because these companies apply for patents. I think it's time to at least attempt to collectively envision what type of a privacy regime we'd like to have in place so that anybody who's developing new technologies has to work within those constraints."
Andrejevic points out that Internet searches are logged and preserved in search engines' memories. The IP addresses -- numbers that identify a computer on the Internet -- are also recorded, meaning it's possible to tell whose computer was used to conduct the search. Anyone with access to those search records could use the keywords to infer a lot about the searcher -- their relationship status, where they shop online, their hobbies and health concerns, whether they have kids, and more. Companies own the data they collect, which means they can use it however they want -- or even sell it -- without users' permission. In many cases, users can't even access data about themselves to see if it's correct, Andrejevic said.
Global positioning systems (GPS) are another example of sacrificing privacy for convenience. Cell phones are required to have GPS for emergency purposes, and many people buy GPS-equipped vehicles for navigation assistance. The downside, Andrejevic said, is that they make it possible to track a person's every move.
"Cell phones have already been used without people's knowledge to track traffic patterns in cities," Andrejevic said. "It's really not that far-fetched to imagine a movie ad popping up on your cell phone just as you pass by the theater. Google once planned to provide free Wi-Fi to the city of San Francisco in exchange for gathering information about users' locations in order to bombard them with time- and location-specific ads. So, a person using Wi-Fi in a park could receive a pop-up ad for the sub shop across the street at lunchtime."
Market researchers use seemingly anonymous acts like casting a vote on "American Idol," recording shows on TiVo, joining a "discount club" at a store, buying songs on iTunes, or browsing books on Amazon.com to identify our preferences. That information is used for customized ads. In the hands of political consultants, the technology-assisted market research is used to deliver messages on the issues most important to specific groups of voters. Hypothetically, a person who buys a minivan may be likely to care about K-12 education. That voter might receive a mailing detailing a candidate's plan to boost school funding.
"Some uses of this data, like getting a coupon or receiving a flier about a candidate might seem benign," Andrejevic said. "But over time, it could become more eerie and intrusive. Imagine researching impotence on your home computer and finding a brochure about Viagra in your mailbox a few days later."
Technology-assisted surveillance isn't just something institutions impose on individuals. Frequently, individuals use it to monitor each other, Andrejevic said. Web sites make it easy to dig up background on potential dates. Parents invest in "nanny cams" and instruments that track where and how fast their teens drive. Spouses install keystroke-monitoring devices on their home computers to see what their husbands or wives are up to online. A proposed government program called "US HomeGuard" would enlist surveillance technology and the public's help to watch for suspicious activity -- especially near unguarded borders and "soft targets" like water treatment facilities. A Web cam would allow participants to monitor such sites while they worked online.
Andrejevic notes that although Americans often claim to be concerned about privacy issues, their actions suggest otherwise.
"With each new step in the development of interactive technology, we are paying for convenience with increased surveillance and control," he said. "Because these steps are relatively gradual, we habituate ourselves to them as we go, like the proverbial frog who doesn't notice the gradual temperature increases in the cooking pot until it starts to boil. When it comes to government and corporate monitoring, things are heating up and it's time to pay attention before we find ourselves in a full-fledged surveillance society."
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500