The White House has released a new report on the gathering and usage of data generated by individuals that for the first time shows high-level awareness of “big data”'s danger to individual privacy and consumer freedom.
The Podesta report, available here as a PDF, contains a great deal of interesting material about government gathering of data on individual actions and activities, including the widely-reported collection and analysis of cell phone call data by the NSA. More importantly, though, the report recognizes that the same techniques are used by US and international companies to generate personal, buying and activity profiles that enable highly sophisticated targeting of marketing efforts.
Such data gathering, analysis and targeting is no surprise to renegades — we've understood this practice and its dangers for a decade or more. But this report, produced by a committee headed by Presidential counselor John Podesta, is the first acknowledgement at high government levels of the presence and potential for grievous misuse of the practice in private hands.
Renegade Consumer is not directly concerned with the government snooping and data collection revealed earlier this year. That doesn't make it a non-problem; we should all be deeply concerned and suspicious of governmental intrusion into the most private recesses of our lives just because they've found a way to profile us from a surreptitious distance. But we choose our battles carefully, and need to leave that concern aside for others... so that we may make use of the gratifying exposure of the practice in the corporate, consumer goods world.
Until the NSA's sweeping collection of cell phone records was revealed earlier this year, it sounded positively nutty to claim such a thing was happening. I actually struggled with an entire chapter of the forthcoming book trying to adequately describe the level of governmental data collection, storage and analysis, and could not rid it of the crinkle of a tinfoil hat. Now that this activity has been exposed by far more powerful sources than myself, it no longer needs explanation or description. We can move on to discussing its meaning and implications.
However, the public focus has been on governmental data collection, with all similar activities by the private sector brushed aside, ignored, even disbelieved. That is, except for the funny pages — I have lost count of how many cartoons about corporate/consumer snooping I've seen in the last few months. As with all co-option, they're a good chuckle and collectively boil down to “they can snoop all they want as long as it brings me good online coupons!”
It's not serious, you see, that Google and a half-dozen other companies are carefully tracking your every click, your every page visit, your every search. It's unimportant that they are scanning your posts, tweets and even email for keywords and tracking tags. It's of no concern that this data is accumulated, bit by bit, until repositories hold a shockingly detailed virtual image of you and your life, naked to any analysis they care to subject it to. None at all. Doesn't matter. Probably not even real. Besides, none of us do anything worth tracking anyway, right? Who cares if Google looks over your shoulder as you read Facebook pages or movie sites or porn or alternative political sites or... this site?
And who cares that the government snooping and data is at least theoretically answerable to higher powers, on up to We the People... while Google and Acxiom and consumer product conglomerates build even larger data holdings but answer to no one outside of themselves? The government perhaps — perhaps — has some right and purpose in knowing all about us as citizens. Heavy on that perhaps, yes, but there is at least some justification on some level... and so far, the courts have agreed. But that's not our issue.
The Renegade Consumer issue here is this: I think we should care, and deeply, that private companies can track our every action, store it in bulk, trade and sell it like baseball cards, and increasingly depend on the existence and manipulation of this “big data” to track us, target us and find ever more accurate and indefensible ways to sell crap to us. They are invading our rights to privacy and economic self-determination, and doing so in ways that would provoke torch mobs if the practice were truly understood. They are turning the walls of our homes to glass, the better to observe us, the better to track our every twitch... the better to get around the last vestiges of resistance to buying whatever crap their profit base demands we buy.
Until yesterday, trying to make this point to new listeners wasn't much different from trying to tell them about government tracking a year ago — you could see them waiting for me to begin raving about chemtrails and black helicopters. But now... now the government itself, the White House itself, the office of the President itself has said, in public and with no ambiguity, that something is wrong with permitting private companies to track, record and analyze personal, even private details of individual lives, especially with the unimaginably powerful tools of big data. Yes, they may in some part be looking to deflect the heat for governmental intrusions, but they have raised the larger and more important issue to public visibility in doing so.
(It's such a relief: I no longer have to make bizarre, conspiracy-theoristic claims... because the White House itself has exposed the very practice that set me on the road to founding Renegade Consumer. I can throw out dozens of pages in the book manuscript because that background no longer has to be explained.)
The consumer goods industry is tracking us; is invading our privacy; is using things like User Agreements to enable vast oversight of what should be personal and private activities, and it is doing so for no reason but to better sell us crap and further pad their profits.
Anyone who can think this is a worthwhile exchange — that it's okay or of no concern to trade away the last vestiges of individual and family privacy, for a handful of trinkets or less, just so that they can be more precisely targeted for fostered consumption efforts — anyone who thinks so needs to read the Podesta report.
Even then, the report stops with simplistic results like targeted online advertising. It does not go far enough — it does not get into the levels of outright manipulation and control this system can be put to. It does not begin to explain the tactical-nuke power this puts in the hands of the marketing industry. I expect that discussion to rise in the next few months, as various individuals, institutions and experts who have understood the danger all along get their chance to be heard without sounding like they form an entire tinfoil hat brigade. And I hope the public will begin to listen as all this blather about tracking and snooping and big data and its implications for privacy is brought right to their doorstep — right into their invaded, exposed, tracked and manipulated lives.
And I'm both pleased and relieved to be among the first of them, finally able to shout these warnings... and from the tall, tall shoulders of the US government, the White House, which has its share of things to answer for but has struck a resounding blow for Renegade Consumer aims.
Thank you, Mr. Podesta.
(Update, 2019: the link to the report has been changed to an alternate location, as the original is part of the vast material purged from the White House website by the Trump administration.)