Skip to main content

'Stalker economy' here to stay

By Bruce Schneier
updated 12:53 PM EST, Tue November 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bruce Schneier: It's no surprise that companies are tracking us more aggressively
  • Schneier: Keep in mind that you're the product; their real customers are the advertisers
  • He says for example, the "Do Not Track" law is essentially useless to protect consumers
  • Schneier: Many sites run on advertising; companies have little incentive to provide privacy

Editor's note: Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and author of "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Thrive."

(CNN) -- Google recently announced that it would start including individual users' names and photos in some ads. This means that if you rate some product positively, your friends may see ads for that product with your name and photo attached -- without your knowledge or consent. Meanwhile, Facebook is eliminating a feature that allowed people to retain some portions of their anonymity on its website.

These changes come on the heels of Google's move to explore replacing tracking cookies with something that users have even less control over. Microsoft is doing something similar by developing its own tracking technology.

More generally, lots of companies are evading the "Do Not Track" rules, meant to give users a say in whether companies track them. Turns out the whole "Do Not Track" legislation has been a sham.

Bruce Schneier
Bruce Schneier

It shouldn't come as a surprise that big technology companies are tracking us on the Internet even more aggressively than before.

If these features don't sound particularly beneficial to you, it's because you're not the customer of any of these companies. You're the product, and you're being improved for their actual customers: their advertisers.

This is nothing new. For years, these sites and others have systematically improved their "product" by reducing user privacy. This excellent infographic, for example, illustrates how Facebook has done so over the years.

The "Do Not Track" law serves as a sterling example of how bad things are. When it was proposed, it was supposed to give users the right to demand that Internet companies not track them. Internet companies fought hard against the law, and when it was passed, they fought to ensure that it didn't have any benefit to users. Right now, complying is entirely voluntary, meaning that no Internet company has to follow the law. If a company does, because it wants the PR benefit of seeming to take user privacy seriously, it can still track its users.

Really: if you tell a "Do Not Track"-enabled company that you don't want to be tracked, it will stop showing you personalized ads. But your activity will be tracked -- and your personal information collected, sold and used -- just like everyone else's. It's best to think of it as a "track me in secret" law.

Of course, people don't think of it that way. Most people aren't fully aware of how much of their data is collected by these sites. And, as the "Do Not Track" story illustrates, Internet companies are doing their best to keep it that way.

The result is a world where our most intimate personal details are collected and stored. I used to say that Google has a more intimate picture of what I'm thinking of than my wife does. But that's not far enough: Google has a more intimate picture than I do. The company knows exactly what I am thinking about, how much I am thinking about it, and when I stop thinking about it: all from my Google searches. And it remembers all of that forever.

As the Edward Snowden revelations continue to expose the full extent of the National Security Agency's eavesdropping on the Internet, it has become increasingly obvious how much of that has been enabled by the corporate world's existing eavesdropping on the Internet.

The public/private surveillance partnership is fraying, but it's largely alive and well. The NSA didn't build its eavesdropping system from scratch; it got itself a copy of what the corporate world was already collecting.

There are a lot of reasons why Internet surveillance is so prevalent and pervasive.

One, users like free things, and don't realize how much value they're giving away to get it. We know that "free" is a special price that confuses peoples' thinking.

Google's 2013 third quarter revenue was nearly $15 billion with profit just under $3 billion. That profit is the difference between how much our privacy is worth and the cost of the services we receive in exchange for it.

Two, Internet companies deliberately make privacy not salient. When you log onto Facebook, you don't think about how much personal information you're revealing to the company; you're chatting with your friends. When you wake up in the morning, you don't think about how you're going to allow a bunch of companies to track you throughout the day; you just put your cell phone in your pocket.

And three, the Internet's winner-takes-all market means that privacy-preserving alternatives have trouble getting off the ground. How many of you know that there is a Google alternative called DuckDuckGo that doesn't track you? Or that you can use cut-out sites to anonymize your Google queries? I have opted out of Facebook, and I know it affects my social life.

There are two types of changes that need to happen in order to fix this. First, there's the market change. We need to become actual customers of these sites so we can use purchasing power to force them to take our privacy seriously. But that's not enough. Because of the market failures surrounding privacy, a second change is needed. We need government regulations that protect our privacy by limiting what these sites can do with our data.

Surveillance is the business model of the Internet -- Al Gore recently called it a "stalker economy." All major websites run on advertising, and the more personal and targeted that advertising is, the more revenue the site gets for it. As long as we users remain the product, there is minimal incentive for these companies to provide any real privacy.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Schneier.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:27 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 6:09 PM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 2:02 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 1:41 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
updated 3:00 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
updated 8:57 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
updated 4:40 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
updated 2:05 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT