Business administration junior Noa Tomaszewski told his brother over the phone about his plans to go backpacking. Two minutes later, he went on Instagram and the first post he saw was an ad for camping gear. Tomaszewski is not the only one to experience something like this.
Industrial engineering senior Cassie Harriman was rummaging through her bathroom to find a Q-tip. She picked up her last one and used it to clean her ears. An hour later, she saw an ad for reusable cotton swabs on her phone.
“I didn’t even say the word ‘Q-tip,’” Harriman said. “I don’t know how it happened.”
Almost everyone with a cell phone has a story like this, which calls into question the connection between technology and privacy. Tech companies have repeatedly denied that they are listening to what people say, but there are other ways devices can know what consumers want, something a recent bill passed in California attempt to address.
Political science associate professor Shelley Hurt specializes in international relations, science and technology policy, and she said she believes data collection is a way for technology to reinforce authoritarianism.
“If we think about the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, the state isn’t allowed to come in and look at our things without a warrant,” Hurt said. “Yet now, with this advanced technology there’s no barrier to coming into our private space.”
The term for this, according to Hurt is “surveillance capitalism,” which was first coined by Harvard professor and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff.
Surveillance capitalism is the use of algorithms that target consumers based on their online activities.
“Between the health apps, the tracking on the phones, our searches on our computers, the cookies that are left behind from everything, there are second, third, and fourth parties that are able to take that data,” Hurt said. The data is then used by advertisers to target specific consumers.
Targeted advertising is the process of homing into private activity and behavioral patterns to create more effective advertisements online, Hurt said.
Business junior Deborah Ong is another person who experienced targeted advertising firsthand.
She texted her roommate asking if she could pick up some Starburst for her. The next day, she got her some, and Ong verbally told her friend about how she ate them all in class. Shortly after, she went on Instagram to scroll through the Stories and a Starburst ad popped up.
“It was weird because I had texted about them yesterday and I had verbally talked about them today,” Ong said.
Whether or not Ong’s phone was actually “listening” to her, her data was being accessed for targeted advertising.
“This is a raw material that is being used for absolute profit and we’re not being compensated,” Hurt said.
While most devices are automatically set up to share data and information with advertisers, there are ways consumers can limit the amount of personal information that is being collected from them.
However, associate professor of science, technology and society Matthew Harsh said our phones are not “listening” to us in the literal way that some people may think. Instead of listening to every word we say as if the microphone was constantly on, they are listening to us in a way where every click we make on our phone is usually recorded — such as our text messages, everything we buy on Amazon, every news article we look at and so on.
He added that in some ways, more information is being gathered this way than by listening to what we are verbally saying. However, there are steps people can take to inhibit some of this tracking.
Tips and tricks to improving data privacy
Harsh said that there are several settings on devices that can help protect privacy.
He said when people go into their settings, they should pay close attention to what kind of access they’re giving to your apps, such as their microphone or their geographical location.
“For example, if you’re using video chat in Facebook Messenger, you’re giving Facebook access to your microphone,” Harsh said. “But you don’t need to give Facebook access to microphone at all times, you just need to give it access when you want to do a video chat, so you can go in and turn that off.”
Other tips Harsh gave included turning off “background app refresh” which will prevent apps from collecting data in the background, and doing so also helps save the phone’s battery life. Additionally, you can reset your “advertising identifier” which is used by advertisers to “match users to segments on Apple’s advertising platform,” according to Apple’s website. Resetting this helps limit the information that your device is collecting on you that apps and advertisers can access.
“If you combine that with private browsing and deleting your cookies often then you will actually see less targeted ads and they will know less about you,” Harsh said.
Along with changing these settings on your smartphone, a new California legislation attempts to ensure better privacy for consumers as well.
The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) is designed to address the conflict between technology and privacy by providing a way for consumers to request that a business disclose the specific pieces of personal information that is being collected on them, as well as the right to request that businesses delete their information. The legislation has been enforced in the wake of the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which protects the fundamental rights of people regarding the processing of their personal data.
Professor Hurt teaches the class POLS 451, Technology and Public Policy, and she said she commends the CCPA because it brings consciousness to Californians about having control over where their data goes. She said that it is important for people to have the ability to request from these companies what information they have on them, and the right to opt out of giving them said information.
“I think that the CCPA is an important first step, but I view it as just the beginning of a conversation,” Hurt said. “I believe if we think that the work has been done, we’re not being serious about how large-scale this situation is right now.”
Hurt hopes this new law will also bring awareness to people about the commercialization and commodification of their personal data.
“This new development is fluid — it’s in the process of being contested, it’s still being shaped, so you young people should get involved,” Hurt said. “You guys should become knowledgeable, informed, be aware, and participate. Make a contribution to define these new parameters and boundaries in ways you think are meaningful.”