For a few months after I bought my first smartphone that comes with the typical GPS functionality, like most users of such phones, I downloaded dozens of apps, some of which prompt a familiar message asking me for permission to “turn on location services.” I mindlessly approved these messages without much consideration. Later on, I found out that many of my apps had been tracking my physical location – with my consent, in most cases. Even my dictionary app (the popular app from Dictionary.com) states on its end-user license agreement (or EULA) that they “collect and store your exact geographic location information to power (some features)” and they also “share this information with advertisers and advertising networks.” I thought it was perplexing that my dictionary records my exact location. While seated at my desk, after I looked away from my screen to catch a nostalgic, appreciative glimpse of that big, ugly and bulky dictionary on my shelf, I realized the real problem.
Art by Slorker
The problem was not with location tracking or advertising networks but the shockingly long time it took me to fully understand such personal information is being transmitted from my phone to app providers, developers and advertising networks. Why my lack of understanding lasted such a long time before I learnt how this geolocation technology works, even though it deeply affects my privacy? I am not alone in having had barely any knowledge of how location data, or other recent technologies for that matter, could be used to compromise my privacy and safety. I had in my pocket a tech tool that can alter my life in many ways that I wasn’t even aware of. GPS-enabled phones can be used in truly wondrous ways, for example, to guide you through an unfamiliar city, and it can also be exploited by someone to stalk you. Thus, my criticism is not of technology or tech devices per se, but of how we’re usually behind in our grasp of how they can significantly affect us. Millions of users today suffer from the same problem: an opaque and incomplete understanding of technology. Many stories from the daily news attest to the reality of, what I prefer to describe as, a “cyberculture shock” in our society.
In March 2010, the house where Keri McMullen and her fiancé lived was burgled after she posted an innocuous Facebook status update telling her friends that they would be away for the day to watch a local band play music in Indiana. The robber was one of her 595 Facebook friends, a junior high school classmate whom she hadn’t seen in 20 years. That type of incident is bound to rise as more naïve people tell the world on location-based social networks about their activities, posting something like they’ll be away on a wonderful vacation for a week or two (read: no one will be home for a week or two).
The next incident might be a familiar one as you’re likely to have seen it on the news. It usually goes like this: two lovers, typically young, agree to film their sexual acts or photograph one another nude. More often than not, it’s the man who charmingly proposes such an idea with words like “I betcha it’s fun to record ourselves doing it,” or “you look so gorgeous naked, let me take a snapshot of that.” Some take this behavior further by videotaping the sexual intercourse in secret. They might do so for the joy of later watching their bedroom conquests on video or using it as hard evidence around friends for their guess-who-I slept-with claims. Also, there’s always someone who uses such scandalous material, threatening to share it with others, unless the victim carries out his or her requests. Even in the absence of malicious purposes and when it’s all consensual, as soon as the relationship turns sour and comes to an end, the jilted ex-lover takes revenge by uploading on public websites the naked photo or sex video. Sometimes the story ends in shame and helplessness and other times it ends in a jail sentence. However in several cases it actually led to the murder of the revengeful lover. Such incidents were recently reported on the news in many countries including USA, Australia, New Zealand, Egypt and China. Expect to read more on the news about this behavior considering the pervasiveness of smartphones equipped with high resolution cameras.
In the seventies and eighties, we believed the promise that technology of the future will make life simpler and easier but now we know that this objective remains as elusive as ever. We’re overwhelmed by the fast pace of technological progress and the mind-boggling amount of innovation. It’s a daunting task to take notice and monitor all new technical products and services available every year, let alone raise enough questions to truly understand how they could affect the way we work, play and communicate.
Art by Exhibitor Online
Here are a few questions that may (and should) trouble us:
- How should I deal with the reality that some of the world’s most powerful web companies record and store data on every purchase I make, every site I visit, every video I watch and every Facebook page I “like”? How long is such data stored for, and for what purposes is it used?
- If you’re a Facebook member, do you really understand how Facebook privacy settings work?
- If it’s Google services that you use, do you know what data they store and how it’s shared across their various services and under what terms Google shares your data with third parties?
- Did you ever look up your full name in Google or other search engines (in “double quotes” for exact match results) to find out what information is publicly available on you, if any? Are you comfortable with the content you find?
- Can anyone easily find through search engine results links to your Facebook or LinkedIn profiles? How much of your profile is publicly visible? How about your Twitter feed or comments you left on news sites and blogs under your real name? How easy is it to find your date of birth or your home address?
There are many more staggering questions that are entirely new for our generation: How to protect yourself against identity theft or hacking? How to deal with information overload? And numerous questions about upcoming technologies like cloud data storage, location-based advertising and facial recognition software.
We progressed from easy-to-understand simple tools, to mechanical tools, to electro-mechanical tools, to today’s highly complex, electronic and computerized equipment. Ironically while we’re delightedly wrapped in a technological cocoon, we’re completely alienated from those objects, left with experiences and interactions devoid of basic knowledge about their inner workings.
I’m not a Luddite or a prophet of doom. I’m not suggesting we abandon new technologies or keep them on the shelves until we conduct enough research on their potential impact. But we must acknowledge that our tech-obsessed society is in a pattern of complacency. To enhance our online experience and make our connectivity to the global data networks more secure, a better understanding and more transparency are required regarding what takes place in the background.
Above is a YouTube video that shows why our cyberculture needs
to acquire a better and deeper understanding of technology and its effects.
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