The philosopher Timothy Morton refers to concepts that are all-encompassing yet difficult to see directly as “hyperobjects.” He points to global warming as an example of a hyperobject. Its enormous scale and amorphous nature often cause skepticism and despair. Digital privacy can be classified as a hyperobject, too: We know our data is tracked, packaged and traded on a massive scale, but we don’t often see it directly. We get glimpses when an oddly specific ad shows up on Instagram or Google, but stories about huge data brokers and detailed databases are tough to conceptualize when we have such a narrow window into the system. Just like climate change, this can lead to skepticism and despair.
How can we avoid being overwhelmed by digital privacy? By interacting with the traces left behind by systems of big data. These digital “crumbs” can help make tangible that uneasy feeling we get from interacting with digital systems. Because the technology sector was allowed to operate with free reign for so long, untangling the breadth and depth of the surveillance economy will take years. However, confronting the evidence currently available to us can help clarify the realities of the system and overcome the powerlessness that can accompany it. Just as images of climate change can be an effective way to galvanize support for action, coming into contact with pieces of our digital world can help us understand the scope and power of the system, transforming the intangible into the tangible and despair into action.
There are some tools that have emerged from the recent tech backlash that can help us look inside the black box of digital privacy. The website Have I Been Pwned?, created by a Microsoft web security expert, allows people to see accounts associated with their email that have been compromised in a data breach. Part of the reason the site exists is that companies in the United States are typically not required to notify people when their data is breached. When I put my personal email address into the site, I saw to my surprise that I had compromised accounts from two separate breaches. Neither company had notified me, and I was able to link a recent hack of my Amazon account to one of the breaches, because I (stupidly) had reused a password from a compromised account. Seeing specific instances where my data was breached, as well as the fraudulent purchases that followed, made the implications of my data insecurity clearer.
Another tool that can help us understand our digital existence is an ad personalization tool from Google that gives a glimpse of the predictions gleaned from our personal data. It lets people see the interests and preferences Google assigns them based off of data such as their search history, YouTube history and partner (third-party) data. I found the granularity of Google’s predictions about me unnerving. I counted 50 different inferences that Google made, including my estimated age, types of movies and music I like and the type of transportation I use. I’ve always been vaguely aware that my activities on the Internet are tracked, packaged and traded, but seeing how much was tracked and how accurate the packaging was reified that feeling.
Finally, Facebook built a tool that gives users an idea of the breadth of organizations that have their data. The tool lists organizations that have run an ad using users’ personal information in the past seven days. The sheer size of my list was surprising, as was who was on it. There were some companies and organizations I directly and often use like Spotify and Netflix, but there were also many I had never interacted with and had no clear connection to. For example, my list included a lieutenant governor candidate from Mississippi, the Kansas City Grilled Cheese Festival and the Arabic branch of Newchic and a Hong Kong-based retailer. How did these organizations I never gave my data to and have no clear connection with end up with my personal information? Why do they want it? The answers to these questions aren’t clear, but they demonstrate the tangled, Kafkaesque mess of online advertising and data collection. I will never go to the Kansas City Grilled Cheese Festival or shop in the Arabic branch of Newchic. Yet, they have my personal data and are using it (seemingly) mistakenly.
Why does all this collection matter? What’s the harm in being served a few irrelevant ads? First, collecting and storing data puts it at risk of being breached. Your data is only as safe as the weakest organization that has it, and we often don’t get to choose who collects vast profiles on us (see the Equifax data breach). Second, it can be used to shape our behavior. All the data collected on us fuels behavioral predictions that can be used with nudges to influence our behavior. This can lead to a power dynamic where organizations with data and information can tune and herd the rest of us, undermining autonomy and potentially democracy.
Proponents of surveillance capitalism often argue that people don’t care about privacy (see Facebook arguing there is no expectation of privacy on its platform). Yet, polls consistently show otherwise. So, where is the disconnect? Because digital privacy is a hyperobject, people often struggle to articulate their discomfort and frustrations with the system. This can make people seem apathetic when they actually feel helpless. We can overcome this by using tools like the ones listed above. They help us interact with the edges of our digital world, giving us a better understanding of the system and its implications. This is empowering — instead of feeling overwhelmed and aimless, we can demand specific changes and start to truly grasp our present and future in the digital age.
Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci can be reached at email@example.com.