Tech Companies Are Tracking Us More Than Ever—and It’s Time to Stop It

Noam Cohen

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I remember when the knows-no-bounds nosiness of the digital world really hit home. Six years ago my mother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer, and I wanted friends and family to know she had excellent care and a great spirit. I opened Gmail but thought: Do not type “cancer.”

This was when Google would scan e-mails for keywords to place ads. So why, exactly, were my hands frozen in midair? It wasn’t the ads themselves— they may even have proved useful. I didn’t want an outsider, even a computer, to overhear such grave family news.

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Here I stand, Exhibit A of the hypocritical tech user: creeped out by the lack of respect for personal privacy, yet still a willing participant. In a recent study of 1,500 Americans, nearly 60 percent said they—like me—were very concerned about the privacy and security of their personal data. Yet they still used the services. A greater proportion—64 percent—confessed they didn’t know what to do about the situation and had given up trying to control it.

Even a tech billionaire like Mark Zuckerberg seems helpless to keep surveillance at bay. In 2016, a photograph revealed that Zuckerberg had gone to the trouble of taping over the camera lens and microphone on his laptop. If a Silicon Valley coding genius can’t manage a more elegant way to protect himself from spying, what hope do the rest of us have? Short answer: not much.

The patterns are clear: We are being monitored everywhere we go, online and off. Computers, smartphones and digital assistants are arrayed with microphones and cameras. Cars carry sensors on the outside, a camera on the inside. Doorbells come with lenses and motion detectors. Info collected goes to a cloud, controlled by computers in a corporate HQ. Which can be hacked. We may shrug off periodic breaches, but it is naive to think our data—from purchase histories to medical records—might be secure, especially when it’s being sold to other businesses.

Our ever-present smartphones also surveil us, even when not in use. Your movements—where you leave from each morning, where you spend the workday—can reveal your precise identity with very little sleuthing by companies that buy the data. Much of this is innocuous, but some of it is stuff that even our nearest and dearest don’t always know. And if you’re a public figure or especially affluent, the threat to security can be even more serious if your location can be so easily traced—and predicted.

Tools to limit tracking do exist, and they involve changing your phone and computer settings and being strict about blocking cookies and giving apps access to your camera and microphone.

But truly effective solutions need to come from the top down. California’s recent Consumer Privacy Act is a first attempt to give consumers more control. For now, there is the familiar problem that much of the work falls on us. You often have to opt out of being tracked; you can request that data collected about you is deleted; you can see how a company has profiled you based on the bits and bytes gathered. But the greater significance is that the government is finally stepping in, albeit imperfectly. Ideally, new laws will end the incentives to acquire data in the first place and start the vital process of deleting the information already amassed.

One such regulation is Europe’s “right to be forgotten” law, which allows people to request that old, embarrassing facts about themselves be purged from sites like Google. A study of five years of requests shows that the law has been quite effective.

In a Maryland county, parents have succeeded in getting tech companies, including Google, to commit to expunge information they have collected at schools; once a year the district conducts a “Data Deletion Week.” The irony, of course, is that these companies were invited into the schools because parents and administrators worried about the websites students might visit and wanted to monitor their time online and how computers were used. But that data will soon be gone, annually at least. There is hope.

We can’t fight the privacy fight in isolation. Some high-school students recently found a way to confuse Instagram’s tracking algorithm about their identity, but really, that isn’t a privacy solution any more than not mentioning my mother’s cancer. More than confusing trackers, we simply need to get rid of them.

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