Data Is the New Gold in Today’s Surveillance Capitalism

We leak information wherever we go, and companies from Google to Fitbit are working to monetize it

Dov Greenbaum 09:0707.09.18

Wherever we go we leak information.


One of the biggest culprits is the smartphone with its constant drip of geolocation data. It is even worse than most of us think. It turns out that if you use a Google app, Google tracks you. Even, it has just been discovered, if you specifically ask it not to. And, although U.S. Federal wiretapping laws do not even consider geolocation data to be sufficient enough communication to fall within its scope, the potential privacy violations from accessing and cross-referencing this data are enormous. U.S. courts are only now becoming cognizant of the privacy impact of this data.


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Earlier this summer, in Carpenter v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that retrieving cell-site location information stored by wireless carriers in order to link a defendant to a crime scene requires a warrant. The Court rightly realized that the pervasive and continual nature of cell location effectively constitutes very personal and private information and is protected under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.


Dov Greenbaum. Photo: IDC Herzliya Dov Greenbaum. Photo: IDC Herzliya

Until now, jurisdictions worldwide have drawn stark lines between what was considered personal and private information demanding protection and data that was deemed not personal enough to warrant extra care in processing. Now, the rapid recent growth of predictive analytics and the artificially intelligent machines and big data that enable them are now requiring us to question these presumptions.


The privacy concerns of this emerging reality are compounded by the increasing amount of data that is being digitally collected. In addition to the daily interactions we already have with our mobile devices, including email, social media, banking, and web browsing, we will soon be adding additional things like mobile health, facial recognition, and voting.


Google now faces possible repercussions from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which views geolocation data as personal and revealing. For its part, Google hasn’t stopped collecting geolocation data when asked not to.


Even when you are not using your phone, geolocation data is a goldmine of information. For example, it discloses where you work, where you live, where you shop, and can reveal where you are when you try to keep your whereabouts secret. It also creates associations between you and other people that co-geolocate with you. So it identifies family members, friends, coworkers, even partners in crime. With a timestamp, geolocation can tie you to a scene of a crime, but not necessarily exonerate you if it places you somewhere else.


Your geolocation data isn’t only accessible by Google, the state, the police, and your service provider. When you take a picture of your breakfast and tweet it out to the world, the metadata in the image, which includes your geolocation data, tells burglars how far you are from home or your boss whether you were really sick on Monday.


Geolocation isn’t all bad though. It is how Waze gets you to work, how Google knows which stores are closest to your current location, and how Uber drivers pick you up. It also lets your Fitbit, or whichever device you use to track your exercise routines, know your running routes.


But your Fitbit, like your phone, knows more about you than you think. Fitbit just released statistics relating to the data it collects. This data includes a staggering 150 billion hours worth of heart rate data from millions of customers all over the world—effectively the largest set of heart data ever collected. Like your phone—which we hope uses data to create greater efficiencies in your daily interactions—the Fitbit data ostensibly provides you with useful metrics about your lifestyle, health, and fitness.


But it tells researchers so much more. The most common measurement that Fitbit collects, your resting heart rate, is actually correlated with early death, diabetes, and other maladies. This dataset may be able to tease out other correlations in the future.


Fitbit is already busy using this data in heart research. Although allegedly anonymizing the data, it is still able to distinguish heartrates of men and women, and of different populations (that geolocation data again), allowing for powerful analyses of health-related differences amongst sexes, age groups, and cultures. And because Fitbit knows what we are doing all the time, it can correlate this data with sleep or vigorous activity.


Like your location data, your fitness and wellbeing data collected by Fitbit could have serious repercussions if it was available and exploitable by private individuals such as your employer, your insurance providers or the government.


This surveillance capitalism, the efforts to monetize data extracted from constant surveillance of consumers by corporations like Google, Fitbit, and others, has become an effectively unconsented and mostly unregulated reality for anyone who lives in our modern society. And we only have ourselves to blame. Ever since George Orwell’s 1984 we have been extra vigilant against Big Brother, but while we were distracted, all the Little Brothers invited themselves in. It may be too late to kick them out.



Dov Greenbaum is a Director at the Zvi Meitar Institute for Legal Implications of Emerging Technologies, at Israeli academic institute IDC Herzliya.

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