You are Being Watched and It’s Not Okay

Invoking George Orwell’s 1984 when talking about surveillance is often disregarded as an exaggeration. It’s like bringing up the Nazis if you disagree with a new bill in Congress; you disqualify yourself because you exaggerated the ramifications and lost your credibility.

People loved bringing up 1984 when the Patriot Act came out. The government was tapping people’s phones and everyone knew about it. You either screamed about our descent into an Orwellian dystopia, or you said, “What do I care if the government knows I went to Diary Queen?” The whole idea was that it was being done in order to catch the “bad guys” so if you weren’t planning to blow up a school, you didn’t have to worry about anything.

However, there’s something called the foot-in-the-door technique. Basically, it means that you work your way to a larger favor by starting with something small. Have you ever had a homeless person ask you for a dollar, and then immediately ask you for a few more as soon as you hand it over? It’s that.

Now, I’m not saying the government was tapping our phones under the guise of stopping terrorism in order to track our every move, but it played a role into our casual acceptance of location services on our phones. Most people have a vague understanding of this, but probably not its full breadth.

I bring this up because the New York Times podcast called “The Daily” ran a great episode on this today, and I highly recommend you listen to it. It details how much of our information we volunteer and how it is used. I think most people’s response is going to be, “Who cares if an advertising agency knows I went to McDonald’s?” and that’s the problem.

It’s easy to blow this out of proportion and say our privacy has disappeared and we’ve been brainwashed into accepting it because we believe we are lost in a sea of people so even if our information is being recorded there’s no way someone would actually choose us out of the vast well of possibilities. You know why it’s so easy to do that? Because it’s actually true.

“The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.” - 1984, Chapter 1

I’m not going to recount the specifics of the podcast because that would just be redundant (and I’d do a worse job of conveying the information), but basically what’s happening is companies are recording your movement through apps and selling the information to third-parties. For example, they might say something like, “Hey, Starbucks on 7th Avenue, we know a middle age Caucasian male who walks past your store every Tuesday at 3 pm, it might be a good idea to toss an ad their way right around then and rope yourself a frappuccino sale.”

That might sound a little too specific, but it’s not. This type of detailed marketing is why people think their phones are listening to them and basing advertisements around what they hear. They’re not doing that (I don’t think), but they are putting together a detailed account of your habits and preferences based on your daily choices and whereabouts.

And even though they might not be doing this to convince you to vote for a specific party/accept new taxes/ignore travesties and hate a specific group of people, they are doing it to market to you. “Marketing” is just another name for brainwashing. Remember when Budweiser changed their name to America? I sure do because I started buying Budweiser all the time and I don’t even like it. Companies find tricks to set themselves apart from the other companies selling products which are exactly like theirs, except for the packaging and associated jingle. They wouldn’t have to make it shiny if they could sell it on its own merits.

Using these location services for marketing purposes is taking it one step further and using your own habits against you. It’s a heist. And we willfully sign up for it because it sucks to have to type your town into the weather app every time you want to see if you can plan on taking the dog to the park on your next off day.

However, as we learn every other week when some hooligan on the internet messes around and ends up stealing the financial and personal information of half a trillion people, nothing is safe. This is outlined in the podcast, but the ability to track people can be easily redirected and used for nefarious reasons. However, this is conjecture and I’ll leave that point to your imagination without drawing it out.

These two quotes are from the very end of the podcast and I think they illustrate why this should be taken seriously. They certainly read like something from 1984.

“Most people are completely unaware that everywhere they go and everything they do is available for sale.”

“Every aspect of our lives is being recorded…And as of now, there are no federal laws specifically regulating the collection and use of consumer’s location data.”

However, the only difference from this and 1984 is that we didn’t need a rat cage face mask to love Big Brother. All he had to do was make himself so useful we couldn’t live without him.