Spying Is Just Another Service We Offer
Those who would give up essential privacy to get a good price on cheap crap deserve a lot of crap.
I just finished reading A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. It's a science fiction tale packed with murder, intrigue, and politics, mixed with ruminations about identity and the cost of living in and supporting an empire.
Arkady Martine is a masterful world builder and A Memory Called Empire left me wanting to visit her intergalactic Teixcalaanli Empire while wondering if I'd be too afraid to accept an invitation if one came to me. A planet-spanning city, The Jewel of the World, lies at its heart, and it's a fascinating and terrifying setting for Martine's story.
I'll let her describe it, in a quote from an interview with NPR.
Which of course is where the algorithm-driven subway system and other city-ruling algorithms and artificial intelligences that I created for the Jewel of the World come in. If you have something so complex as a world-city, it would require artificial intelligence to keep tabs on, most likely. And algorithmic processes, to help predict what its needs are. And because I study history, and because I work in city planning, I knew when I began thinking about those algorithms that they were going to be biased, be about panopticon control, be about making citizens of Teixcalaan visible to policing and governing forces, and making non-citizens either invisible or singled out for persecution. Because that's what algorithms do, because human beings write algorithms.
I promised to give AI a rest in last week's comments, but that's not what this post is about, instead let's talk about keeping tabs. Teixcalaanlitzlim wear cloudhooks that provide them access to their version of the Internet while giving the Sunlit, the Empire's police, the ability to track their movements.
So, cloudhooks are essentially cell phones, or where cellphones are headed. We're not tracked in real time the way people are in A Memory Called Empire, but we might as well be. Advertisers are tracking your phone, and local law enforcement can retrace anyone's movement with that information, and they don't need to get a warrant or talk to the phone company.
They've been able to do this since at least 2018 with a tool called Fog Reveal.
What distinguishes Fog Reveal from other cellphone location technologies used by police is that it follows the devices through their advertising IDs (emphasis added), unique numbers assigned to each device. These numbers do not contain the name of the phone’s user, but can be traced to homes and workplaces to help police establish pattern-of-life analyses.
Fog Reveal using publicly available information collected by advertisers to track the historical location of devices. These devices are identified by codes that allow advertisers to track user habits. As of now, few police departments are using Fog Reveal. But that doesn't mean more won't, and what the product does isn't complicated. There may be others out there, and you can bet the feds already have something better.
And don't forget, this is public information. These IDs are part of a product advertisers buy to track you and sell you stuff. Law enforcement aren't the only people that can use it to track people.
We're told not to worry about the IDs because they're "anonymized." They identify devices instead of names. But Fog Reveal shows that with just a little effort—like checking for where the advertising ID spends its days and nights—someone can use the patterns revealed by the data to tie the ID to a person. A simple computer program could tie 100s of IDs to people in seconds. (You don't even need an AI for that.)
Americans profess to have a wide anti-authoritarian streak. Our politics show it to be pretty shallow, because both left and right will abandon it in a hot minute when presented with the right villains. But, the idea of the government tracking our every move wouldn't fly in the United States. We're not Teixcalaanlitzlim. They have a monarch with scary secret police at his beck and call. We have a law enforcement system that's fractured and scattered by design.
No, we've given up our privacy to corporations instead. In return, we got social media, cat videos, memes, and great deals on devices like cell phones, computers, and fitness trackers.
You've probably heard some version of "if you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product." In many cases, this is true. Social media sells your attention to advertisers. Cell phone vendors sell phones and service for a loss because they sell your ID to someone else. PC Vendors discount computers and load them with adware. Even Microsoft Windows comes with ads pre-installed because they don't make enough money selling buggy office software.
Some of us, and I used to be one of them, think that there's a corollary to that rule: “If you can afford to pay for a product, you won’t be the product.” But now I know better. Paying more might reduce the number of companies tracking you to one, but you will be tracked and you will see someone's targeted ads.
What can you do?
You can (allegedly) opt out of tracking on your phone. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has instructions here.
You can use an adblocker like UBlock Origin or Privacy Badger. Some sites will try to shame you or not let you visit them because the only way they can make money is by compromising your privacy. You can turn the blocker off on a site by site basis.
If they offer an add-free subscription model, you can pay for it. Substack is an attempt to prove that you can keep a site running without ads. If you want ads to stay away, pay for some newsletters.
Hate ads and creepy trackers? Consider becoming a paid subscriber so Substack can stay add-free.
If you really want to make life difficult for advertisers, use a virtual private network (VPN.) While most tech providers want you to associate them with piracy, they're very effective at protecting your privacy; not just from creepy trackers, but from attackers that snoop for information like credit card numbers. I won't connect any of my devices to a public wi-fi without one. Learn more from the EFF here.
Finally, you've probably heard about the moves to ban TikTok because of its ties to the Chinese government. While I think that a company that falls under Chinese jurisdiction hoovering up as much personal data as TikTok is worrisome (and they collect a lot, there's something that would be much more effective than banning one app.
A privacy law. Make it illegal to collect that data without explicit consent, regardless of where your corporation is headquartered.
Why don't we have one? Because the businesses that are profiting from your data are making damn sure neither party supports one. Privacy isn't an issue for the left or the right. That's not a coincidence.
Write your representatives. Demand a privacy law.