We love to think of ourselves as creatures of utmost rationality. The truth is, I believe our irrationality is what makes us fundamentally different from other creatures. Just think for a moment about the forces that shape our choices in life. If someone hurts you, 9 times out of 10 the perpetrator is a lover, a family member or a friend.
More surprisingly, we justify misguided behavior using logic. Give a needy person 10 dollars, he’ll get a meal. Give him 2000 and he’ll get a pair of Gucci sunglasses and Jordans. So much for the Maslow Pyramid.
But science fails to explain our irrational side. So we lean towards all kinds of religions just to avoid the pain of admitting defeat. We pray when we’re on the edge only to curse when the threat goes away. We love those who do us harm and harm those who cherish us. We kill for love and love for lust.
The way the great Vincent Willem van Gogh sees it is:
The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.
Now, how incredible is it that a powerful tool like the internet is free? Long story short, if anything is free, it may be the case that “you’re the product“.
In the fishermen’s story, the sea represents improper use of the internet, while the safe shore is our privacy.
We are trading our time, our private information, everything that makes us who we are for nothing in return but a shallow sense of acceptance on social media. “Magic mirror on the wall” turns into “Instagram on my phone”. So who’s the “fairest” of all, one might ask…
Internet Footprint & Digital Crumbs
As we navigate through our internet browser, visiting all kinds of websites and updating our social media status, we leave behind some sort of vapor trail or bread crumbs. It’s this trail that helps internet giants and anonymous hackers to identify us and, more importantly, have a detailed record of all of our customer preferences, our family photos, the places we have been to, our physical addresses and emails, along with everything that could be related to our digital identity.
In fact what many of us don’t know – or seem to overlook – is that our personal data is nothing short of an asset that belongs to us and us only. And just as with any sort of asset, such as stocks or bonds, this entitles us to rights and interests in our data. It goes without saying that no physical or online entity should have the right to use it or trade it without our consent.
We are living in an era where Tech giants like Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, to name but a few, are exploiting the information we’ve given them for free when signing up for their products and services. If we take into consideration that 90% of Google’s revenue comes from online advertising, we begin to get an idea of the amount of value hiding behind our personal data. It seems there is great wisdom in Millennial proverb that goes:
“If you are not paying for it, you are not the customer. You are the product!!”
This gets more concerning if we consider the fact that Google is regularly scanning our Gmail, that our iPhone knows exactly where we are at all times even if we turn the location services off, and that we don’t even own our Facebook profiles or any of the pictures we post on there. It all belongs to Facebook, and we have given it to them. Nice and free. The color filters, rose crowns and doggy faces are just bait.
I personally recall when I first realized that there is something wrong with consenting to everything Facebook and Google ask you to sign up for. I had just looked up cheap round trips from Albuquerque NM to Las Vegas NV. For the next couple of weeks, my Facebook, Instagram, Google, Gmail and Youtube were all about cheap car rentals, Las Vegas casinos, call girls in Reno, “visit Arizona before Nevada”, you name it. It was straight up creepy. And I felt like someone was clearly treating my digital presence like a disposable credit there for the taking. Needless to say, I resisted the temptation of cheap car rentals, fights and Arizona stopovers. I ended up on a road trip with my own car….
How did we sink this low ?
Let’s rewind, and begin with one of the general questions that could help us get a bit of context. How to make a profit from any website? Besides going for a paywall where access is restricted to users who have paid a subscription fee, or setting up an online platform aimed at selling goods, very few options are available.
In fact, most blogs or website owners shape their business models and craft their content around driving traffic towards their online portals. Traffic is to their business as desperation is to Las Vegas. With simple math at play, a fraction of the audience is going to buy something. If not, eager visitors will see or click on the advertisements displayed. Their streams of revenue hinge on “Pay per view (PPV)” and/or “Pay per impression (PPI)” schemes. And those ads are often generated after our internet browser has been tracking our navigation history. It knows everything we have been buying or looking for, what we have been doing online, the cities we recently visited, places we checked in, etc.
To sum it all up, companies are paying those who offer to sell our data, because they think they can offer us the service we might be looking for.
Now on the mobile phone side, if we run an online analysis on our smartphones we can quickly identify tens of applications we have installed that are actively accessing our content, our 24/7 information, and our media files. We may or may not knowingly consented to this while installing the app and checking “Agree” on the often lengthy and dubious “Terms and conditions” section.
The data mining industry
Here is a tiny part of the information that is collected by Google if you have a Gmail account linked to your phone:
- Which apps you have installed
- Which flight you have taken and who you were with
- All of your day to day, hour by hour location and who you were with. (Google officially admitted that even if you turn off your GPS, they still continue to collect your GPS location.)
- All online purchases.
- A detailed list of apps you’ve spent money on.
- All your web history, organized by device.
- Behavioral pattern analysis. Even if you never give your name, and you hide behind a VPN, you still have a footprint and you are categorized.
- Date and location of all your media, photos and videos.
This leads to the following obvious consequences:
- Advertisement targeting is one of the first things that comes to mind, but collecting and storing all the data about you can also have a relational or juridic impact. Can you imagine if it becomes mandatory to show your phone content to border control, as recently happened to the former Mozilla CTO Andreas Gal who spent 3 hours in interrogation because he didn’t want to unlock his phone? Can you imagine if couples in relationships start to think it’s normal to have access to all this information about one another? (Some of you may already be in this situation) Anyway, you name it, the consequences are endless.
- Content targeting is one of the paradoxes of this list. On the one hand, you are always happy that Youtube and Netflix use complex AI to give you relevant content that they know you will like. But this practice was not built to make you happier, it has only one goal: to keep you on their platform as long as possible. On the other hand, one insidious consequence is that you are no longer on a free and open internet. You are not facing the randomness of the internet like in the good old days. Yes, all the content is still available, but it’s no longer displayed to you. From the point of view of Google or the government, the best jail is one that you cannot see. Let’s go one step further, and imagine in the future, an advanced self-driving car that knows all the kinds of places you like, based on your past behaviors and habits. You could end up giving the AI behind it complete control over your life: what you see, the places you go to eat, your social activities, or whatever else the creator of the AI decides to implement because “it is for your own good”.
- Knowing that everything on the internet is here to stay, and it builds up over the decades, if somebody defames you, it could follow you for years. Services that try to clean up your internet presence charge as much as $15,000. But defamation becomes easier the more content about you there is publicly available.
- The fact that you have a unique ID (Mobile device = Your Google account) means that without knowing it, you have given tons of applications on your device access to a lot of personal information. Masquerading as ergonomics, it’s like a vulnerability facilitator.
This list relates to just a few possibilities that are available from your Google account and Google search engine. When we add to this the extra layer of social networks, things get even worse. I know I’ve only talked about Google, its search engine, and Android phones here. I don’t have anything against them in particular; GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) are all the same and I’ve simply taken the most famous. I mean, let’s face it, even the verb “To Google” exists now.
Only the small secrets need to be protected. The big ones are kept secret by public incredulity.
Call to action!
You might think that the above statements are not true or are overplayed. Well, we hope that the following to-do list will allow you to discover the truth and enable you to take action on your privacy.
Evaluate how much data Google holds about you
This first link allows you to go directly to the settings in your Google account and request a full download of the data that Google keeps about you.
I bet it will reach many gigabytes!
Where did you go, where were you ?
If you never cared about your location setting and always kept it synced with your Google account you will be able to go through and see all the places you have visited in the past. Your entire location history, day by day, hour by hour. If anybody, one day, should get unauthorized access to it… Quite terrifying.
On the bottom right corner of the map, you will see a cog settings button, where you can clear all your past history and deactivate the service.
Delete your activity history
On the following link you can check all your history organized by activity. It also includes your web history.
Take control of each activity
You can activate only the services you want to keep from here:
An overview is available here: Activity controls overview
More and more about your past behaviors
This part of your account allows you to check all the different behaviors, surveys, feedback, ‘likes’ you gave and so much more. It takes time to go through all of this but it’s totally worth it.
Do you want to stop Google serving you targeted ads because they want you to be their product and keep consuming endlessly? Do it here:
Additionally, if you haven’t already, feel free to install an advertisement blocker plugin on your browser. More information below:
Additionally, ad blockers reduce the chances of your web browser downloading malware.
An overview of the sync of your Google Chrome web browser
For once… time to read ?
All the Google guides related to Privacy if you want to get more information on specific Google products: Google policies
Third party application permission.
Accessing an application with your Google account is one thing, but giving a third party application access to your personal Google information is another that should (almost) never happen.
Here you can see all the third party application permissions. And even for the most careful people like me, who try to be always aware of such permissions, well, I was far from in perfect control when I first discovered this link:
The first block, Third party apps, should be as empty as possible. If you’re unsure, a good method, is to delete all of them from the list and check each app right afterwards to see if the behavior has changed. If not, you made the right decision. If the app really needs access, it will ask you again for permission.
Google SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
Some of you may have found out that when you search your name in Google, the results that come first are not the most relevant about you and could lead to controversial conclusions about you. Good news: if you are a European citizen, the law is on your side with the new GDPR rules. You have the right to be forgotten and a way to make it happen.
You need to follow this link:
And complete the form. You can remove anything you want that is legitimately armful for your reputation or obsolete. This look like it is only for EU citizen and I didn’t find out the US equivalent.
Nevertheless, here some interesting resources that can help you to remove unwanted content from the internet.
TrustUnion note from the redaction
You may have noticed that as the former CTO of TrustUnion, I pour a lot of feeling into privacy-related subjects. It’s something that has haunted me right from the beginning. As a fun fact, my father used to say back at the birth of internet, that if one day I tried to hack Windows software, a small red light would start to blink in the headquarters of Microsoft next to my name. I was 8, and believed it! But somehow, even though this naive idea has passed, I think I’ve always kept the feeling that somebody is watching me.
For the sake of the TrustUnion project and everyone involved with it, be assured that privacy is our highest priority.
Before I finish this article, let me share some tips for your everyday life.
Additional good practices
On your mobile and desktop computer start to use an alternative web browser such as Firefox, Opera, Dolphin etc… As a side note, Firefox on mobile allows you to install an ad blocker plugin and get rid of advertising on mobile too 😉
Use a new email provider such as Proton Mail (or any privacy focused company) for your email and, if needed, keep a Google account only for your Android mobile.
On a regular basis, go on Google and search for “First name Last name” and “Last name First name” to see if some unwanted content comes up. (If any, do it for your children too!)
Check your privacy settings on all your social networks. It’s still astounding to see how many people give complete strangers full access to their Facebook account.
Maintain the privacy of your children by blurring their faces if you post photos of them on social networks: they never asked you to spread their life publicly to get a few likes, and they will be immensely thankful when they grow up.
If not mandatory, give completely fake information about you when you subscribe to any service. Give your real phone number as a last resort.
Always remember that your personal information has value, and you have the right to keep it to yourself. It’s not a matter of having nothing to hide, it’s a matter of freedom and fundamental rights.
Read more about privacy in our previous article here.
Have you followed any of these calls to action? Let us know in the comments section or on our Telegram if this article was helpful or you have any other thoughts.