Tech lets us carry the world on our laps and in our hands. But it also invites the world to poke around in our should-be-private lives. It’s creepy that way.
“Did you forget something?” the email taunts. Just minutes ago I closed a tab on my internet browser after a session of “shop-’n’-drop”: filling up the basket with copious objects of my desire, then closing the tab before inflicting any damage on my bank account. Don’t judge me, it’s less sweaty than a yoga class.
Ding. My head slowly turns to my laptop like in a campy horror movie. One new message: “Did you forget something?” And there it is, my rejected shopping list. All that’s missing are the pleading puppy eyes.
How much does the internet know about you? Beneath your carefully curated social media profiles lurk intimate facts about the real you: your shopping habits, your first pet’s name, your favourite colour of underwear. Best guess… the internet knows you better than your mother, your dog, your best friend and significant other. Combined.
If you start getting emails from companies that you do not remember subscribing to, that’s because the internet remembers. If a top you looked at yesterday shows up in an Instagram ad like a stalky salesperson – well, guess what! Some bot is paying attention. Those pesky pop-up ads for products previously viewed on other sites? That is called remarketing, and this is how it works. You visit a shopping site that runs an advertising network. That network places cookies (the nonedible kind) on your computer that say what you were looking at. When you go to a different site that has the same advertising network the saved cookie is displayed as an ad. Try clearing your cache. Clear your cache a lot.
Weirdly, if the worst that happens is that companies try to sell you a dress you once looked at two weeks ago, you’re winning. Because, chances are, the internet has more juicy dirt to work with. Imagine a world where everything you’ve said, written, viewed or photographed on a digital device is discoverable by anyone with a simple search. Every stupid, ill-considered little joke. Every drunken flirt. Every saucy picture. That nerdy guy in IT can probably see it already.
Rewind to 2014: hacker group Guardians of Peace, sounding like something from a DC comic book, leaks a barrowload of confidential info pilfered from film studio Sony Pictures. Barack Obama and Angelina Jolie are among the famous names getting slammed in emails, while the script to James Bond film Spectre makes an unscheduled debut, sending Bondies everywhere into rapture/despair (it got mixed reviews). More sinister were the leaked personal details about Sony’s employees and their families. And even sinister-ier was when a year or so later, in a different variety of leak, some far less scrupulous hackers accessed Apple’s cloud server and stole private naked snaps of usually modestly dressed celebrities, and Jennifer Lawrence.
It gets worse. The phone companies can access text messages. Google stores every email it processes, and every web search. And as Edward Snowden, CIA/NSA whistleblower, revealed, the security services can access your social media as readily as, well, you can. In the last General Election the row about police under-funding was spun as a redeployment of resources: investment for digital policing, that is, to spy on us more. The minority Conservative government is on a mission to regulate the internet. Encrypted messages, default on WhatsApp since 2016, are under fire: no-one can read them so terrorists benefit from the secrecy. “We need to do everything we can to reduce the risks of extremism online,” said Prime Minister Theresa May, imagining an elite mob of monkeys in police helmets swiping through endless holiday snaps. Probably. Included in government proposals: that Apple and (WhatsApp owner) Facebook allow Britain’s national security agencies access to, yep, encrypted messages.
Of course we’re not all terrorists, no matter what the government thinks. A digital backdoor for the cybercops will push the stabby-bomby types to alternative services, leaving the rest of us exposed. And it’s not just online shops and military intelligence (domestic and foreign) that want to snoop: private hackers and scammers are the rotten cherry on top of this melting mess of a security sundae. Lurkers on the dark web habitually rip a person’s life apart “for the lolz”. Indeed, even the founder of give-us-all-your-consumer-data-in-exchange-for-never-having-to-see-anyone-irl-again.com Mark Zuckerberg tapes over his laptop camera and microphone jacks to avoid being monitored by individual hackers who use Remote Access Trojans: RATs are invisible malware programs that give administrative access to computers. That includes deleting or adding files, distributing viruses, and yes, recording audio and video inputs without any outward sign of use. So maybe close your laptop when you take a shower.
Collectively we are giving up more and more of our privacy online in the name of fast, personalised service. A future where our clothes, food, partners and more are decided for us by programs that track our preferences and activity… well, that’s nearly here. Reckon I’ll be doing my window shopping in the real world from now on.
– – –