My friends, I live in California, which apparently thinks it’s the bulwark of democracy (more on that another time) and plays host to Silicon Valley, the heartbeat of the tech industry. Silicon Valley has always maintained that it’s changing the world (implying for the better) and that it’s more progressive and forward-thinking than industry usually is. The tech industry is your cool and fun friend who you’d totally take to a party and hang out with, right?
Wrong, my friends. In the last few months I’ve seen the industry parading nonexistent progressive credentials because it’s aware that ‘resisting Trump’ is going for business, especially for the markets it’s targeting, and I actually wrote about this a bit at Bitch Magazine, but I want to go into more depth here, because I still see people lauding the tech industry for its performative progressivism, and with that I see a lack of understanding about what is at stake here, because what is at stake? Is you.
If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re enmeshed in one or more tech industry products right now. This blog is hosted using WordPress, and backed via a number of plugins — all free. I compose posts using Opera, a free browser, on a Macbook. If I rotate windows, I’m running a variety of free software that connects me to services I use — GMail, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, online banking, Amazon. My credit card number, Social Security number, address, birthday, and a variety of other personal information are stored in multiple databases all over the internet. My life and being are online and I am in an uneasy relationship with the companies providing the services I use, silently accepting the fact that, for example, when I send a W9 over GMail to a company I work with, I am perforce transmitting sensitive personal information that a third party could see. I make the choice to do these things.
The tech industry has ballooned (again) in recent years, driven by products that functionally make the consumer the product, something I’ve also talked about at length. The things I do on platforms like Twitter and Instagram add value — I am a marketable commodity, as is my work. That means that the tech industry and I are already in a position of inequality, even before questions of protecting my data come up.
And they do come up. We know that the government has a practice of using social media for surveillance and that this practice is condoned and sometimes enabled by tech companies. We know the government uses warrants to seek information and that some tech companies roll over for them, all of this happening behind the scenes where you don’t even see it. We know that in other cases, companies do resist, but eventually cave. I assume that the data I share online may become visible to people I don’t want seeing it because I understand how these systems work and I understand that my privacy is at the mercy of the companies I freely give my data to. That’s frustrating and sometimes heartbreaking and unsettling, but it’s also a simple fact.
When I see tech companies advertising how progressive they are, I think about how many are built on a highly exploitative model that often revolves around consuming, packaging, and reselling customer data. I think about how most don’t guarantee to protect consumers and in fact provide little information about how they process warrants and requests from the government, that I don’t actually know, for example, what Twitter would do if the government sought information about my accounts.
I do know that numerous tech companies use tactics like serving aggressive advertising that sometimes includes malware. I know that tech companies frequently overreach with permissions on apps, revealing a lot about how people use their phones and what they are doing with them. I know that privacy violations are a way of life in the industry and that many tech people didn’t historically and certainly don’t now understand the problems with this, and the ways that VC-backed firms profit specifically through exploiting privacy.
Careless approaches to privacy aren’t accidental. They are a business model. Because the tech industry is in this to make money, and will continue working to do so. And making money may involve collusion with the government. When the government is already known to be aggressively vindictive, that’s an incentive to collaborate, not resist. This is something that perhaps people don’t understand, that much of this rolling over and ignoring civil rights and the expectations and beliefs of customers will happen behind the curtain, where you won’t see or feel it until it’s too late.
I’m not trying to be patronising here. I’m just trying to have a discussion about some realities of the tech industry. I don’t assume that every single product I use robustly protects my privacy right now. I don’t assume that every single product is backed by a company that will resist warrants to the fullest extent possible. I don’t assume that when I delete my data, it becomes fully purged and inaccessible. I don’t assume that companies will tell me if the government files a request for my data or serves them with a warrant. I have no reason to believe any of these things. What I do have reason to believe is that I should be careful about the data I allow to come into contact with the tech industry, to think carefully about what I say and how I say it, because I should assume that if it isn’t being read by hostile agencies, it will be at some point in the future.
Image: server, dariorug, Flickr