If I hear ‘It’s free, that means you’re the product’ used in defense of unscrupulous app practices one more time, I’m going to become a supervillain.
We all already know: ‘Companies exist to make money’ ‘Servers are not free’, etc. No one should be impressed by this kind of milquetoast bootlickery, nor should we be deterred from speaking against corporate douchery by the lukewarmest takes this side of Dido’s tea.
Companies can do the wrong thing, not get punished for it, and get rewarded for it; and whether or not we’re enjoying their product has no bearing on if what they’re doing is morally acceptable. ‘The Jungle’ made the right people sick about eating incidentally canned orphan meat and things changed, at least domestically (child slave-labor laws are nil elsewhere, and our courts have decided it’s all good). The tracking and selling of consumer behavior and location is one of the current phenomena in ‘This is dystopian and horrible’ news, but unlike the sweep on swil-shilling workhouses, reform here seems slower and sans support.
Everyone who knows me knows that I didn’t care for the Batman Nolanverse of my younger adulthood. But one aspect of ‘The Dark Knight’ I appreciated was that (uncle) Lucius Fox refused on principle to ever recreate programming that would expose precise Gothamite location to anyone after The Joker was found.
It’d be nice to assume everyone with power will use it correctly and responsibly, but that doesn’t happen.
The US military was found mapping out locations of Muslim Americans through the locations sold them from a prayer app, for instance. Earlier this year, helicopter parent app, Life360, got slapped, er that is got convinced totally in boardrooms in planned meetings which had nothing to do with public opinion, into halting its very precise location sales to all but insurance branch company Arity. Precise location meaning ‘This child is at the good Denny’s’, not ‘This child is somewhere in a central middle-class zipcode’.
Chilling. So why aren’t there laws? We’re already twenty-plus years past the Law & Order episodes about cyber-bullying being untouchable by law—what’s the hold-up?
“They operate on the fact that the general public and people in Washington and other regulatory centers aren’t paying attention to what they’re doing”, said Duke Tech Policy lab fellow, Justin Sherman, of tracking data sellers to The Markup.
Then you have the issue of too little, too late policies by app stores. While both Apple and Google scan for, and forbid apps with data trading built-in from their storefronts, there is currently no ban on the more independent server-to-server exchange of information. In other words, the apps cannot contain tattle-tale software, but they CAN gather data to be separately downloaded and sold. Same effect with some extra steps, and the storefronts get to pretend they’re doing the consumer a favor.
I’m still bitter about how ListenOnRepeat got neutered. The lack of oversight is not due to lack of money or influence, make no mistake.
Some of you may be asking – where does personal choice come into all this? After all, a “responsible consumer” would read the user agreements, google whatever they couldn’t understand, and if they felt opposed, just not use that app right?
Well, that’s not how it works.
When was the last time you could opt out of an agreement for software and apps your job needed you to use? I personally never bothered reading the agreements for Slack, Asana, and other workplace productivity products, because the alternative to not using them was…not being employed anymore. Wage stagnation is another pillar of the increase in ‘consensual’ frittering away of privacy. After all, the more you make, the more pro-accounts you can afford, so companies have a more reliable way of keeping the lights on. Therefore the less you need to rely on becoming a permanent data point just to publicize your art, clock in digitally, or send work relevant documents via mobile.
If you have to uproot and make a life completely off the grid to be able to truly forbid companies from mining your data, selling that data, and continuing to be secretive about whether they’re doing it and who with…then you don’t really have a choice. And that is a feature, not a bug.
Anyway, how does Miss Information sound as a villain name? Too on the nose? Asking for a friend.