The Cyber Black Market

The next time you walk into an American Apparel store, be warned: someone is watching you. Actually, something is watching you—a lot of somethings. Every single one of American Apparel’s security cameras could be programmed to watch where you travel in the store, what you buy, and what your age, race and gender are. If so, the store then has the power to manipulate its layout and advertising based on the results that we, the lab rats, have unknowingly given them. It’s not just physical stores, either; almost every corporation, especially those in the technology, advertising and online industries, know everything you do—in their stores and on their websites. Monitoring in-store activity has just started to take off, but online surveillance has been so prevalent that it’s been nearly perfected. Companies track you and record each and every click, then use the data to bombard you with advertising. We’ve all been victim to pop up ads that creepily follow us around the Internet, knowing exactly what we just viewed on Amazon or liked on Facebook. But a problem arises when we, the consumers, don’t give permission for companies to record and file away everything we do online. To make matters even worse, once this sensitive data is compiled, it gets sold to other back-alley companies who specialize in the analysis of this stealthily compiled data. The secrecy with which our privacy is undermined is startling. For example, before a technologically proficient private citizen discovered an unmentioned and untouchable application running on his Android phone that almost no one knew about: CarrierIQ. CarrierIQ is a small, Silicon Valley start-up whose tracking software is installed on over 130 million phones worldwide, with connections to almost every carrier. AT&T and Sprint have stepped forward and admitted using it on many of their devices, all while promising, according to tech blog Engadget, that it’s “solely being used to improve network performance.” Yet CarrierIQ has the power to record everything you do on your phone, even keystrokes as they are logged. This means that the company can read your texts, even while you are writing them. In their own defense, CarrierIQ’s primary investor Mohr Davidow insist, “consumers want ubiquitous service” and have revealed that their company’s software “measures the real life experience of millions of users.” This application has the potential to record and share credit card numbers and other sensitive information you enter online. Worse, there is no ‘opt-out’ feature for users—Think about it, have you ever even seen CarrierIQ on your phone? Sometimes, companies can not only see, but also control your device. After Amazon got into copyright trouble over their eBook editions of Orwell’s “1984,” the company quickly deleted all copies from every single kindle device. Just like that, with no explanation or apology, “1984” was gone. As Bloomberg BusinessWeek points out, the fact that Amazon can remotely and randomly delete content from any kindle device is much more cause for alarm than any copyright litigation. Amazon revealed they had ‘kill switches,’ or ultimate remote control over any of their devices. With a kill switch, the consumers do not have ultimate control over their devices—companies do. Even more frightening is the way you are tracked while you’re online. Facebook tracks you throughout the Internet—not just when you visit their site. According to news website ZDNet, the social network installs cookies in your browser to connect back to your profile when you visit a website and click the Facebook button. However, Australian technologist Nik Cubrilovic claims to have discovered that these cookies are not deleted when you log out of Facebook—and not only do they remain active indefinitely, but they transmit your web activity to Facebook with your unique identifying ID every time you visit a website with ‘social widgets.’ The Wall Street Journal, rightfully startled by many of these problems regarding Internet privacy, investigated the top 50 American websites. These websites carry forty percent of all Internet traffic in the United States. Their results are chilling: on average, a site automatically downloads 64 tracking devices onto a visitor’s computer. These devices determine, in real time, what you are doing as well as your age, income, and location. Every time you revisit the website, these devices update your profile, and then ‘you’ are packaged with thousands of other people’s profiles to be sold on virtual markets to advertising companies. Congratulations: the entirety of your online activity was just sold for one tenth of a cent. Just don’t ask who bought you and why they wanted you. There is not necessarily anything wrong with personalized recommendations—like movies on Netflix or products on Amazon—since companies can help consumers utilize their services better. The problem cccurs when consumers don’t know that they are being recorded, are unaware that their every action is being tracked, and have not given consent to have their data shared with third parties. The sheer magnitude of this problem is overwhelming. Data tracking companies know everything about you. They know every detail of what you do online, and every single click, scroll, and comment is filed away indefinitely for ‘improving the user experience.” For most, Facebook is just another medium of communicating and interacting with friends. Yes, it can be quite personal, but it doesn’t define who we are—or at least that’s what we want to believe. With this use of ‘anonymous’ profiling, each one of us is reduced to one line of code that is sold in bundles of thousands in virtual data markets for less than one cent. And when companies sell data about you, they are not selling colorful pictures of your personality—its all just a history of your life online meant to represent what you are interested in, what you will by, and who you are. We are reduced to 0s and 1s for greatest maximum profit. This is a violation of my rights to liberty and property. Companies are stealing and examining the contents of my life and removing any and all autonomy I have over the data I generate on the web. This data, mind you, is both my property and a representation of myself. Although no huge incident has occurred yet, this already immoral system could have even seriously painful ramifications. Last May, Sony’s Play Station Network, containing 70 million accounts linked to personal data including credit card numbers and home addresses, was hacked for over a month—and to this day no one knows who did it. What if an incident like this happened to the regular online consumer and malicious third parties stole their entire life data? The potential uses for detailed accounts on every single US citizen are endless and the dangers extends from anywhere in reach of an Ethernet cord. As the web and who controls it grows more and more convoluted, my belief in personal security is crumbling. We’ve been reduced to ones and zeroes in the online universe-little more than cyber-cattle being led to the slaughterhouse. The danger that this type of data farming carries with it cannot be ignored. These strands of code have the ability to tell our entire life story and, if in the wrong hands, destroy our futures. Sam Koffman is a three-year Upper from Princeton, NJ.