In the digital data arms race, you’re already the loser

Photographing reptiles on a nature walk. VTD/Taylor Dobbs

Photographing reptiles on a nature walk. VTD/Taylor Dobbs

In Jeff Chester’s horror show, there are no ax murderers, chainsaw- wielding madmen or spouses bent on gory revenge.

Nope, nothing but billions of bits of data traveling the Internet, being sliced and diced, melded and stored, in a bloodless digital domain.

That data is all about you -- and it’s all compiled without you knowing it, then packaged and even sold to the highest bidder.

If that doesn’t scare you, Chester says it surely should, and here’s why: Because it’s a sign that the concept of the Internet as a “liberating” and democratizing construct is losing out to the idea that the Internet is the largest business, marketing and commercial opportunity in world history.

So what, you ask?

Well, the valuable currency of this new world is data -- yours, mine, everyone's. Everything you do while logged on -- tweeting, texting or using a mobile phone, from sending email, shopping, blogging, friending someone on Facebook, reading a story, Googling a word, finding a place to eat using an iPhone App, downloading a tune -- has value. And there are companies -- really big unaccountable multinationals -- that are collecting and storing that data to create a profile, of you and me.

And that, argues Chester, has immense implications for privacy and for American society, politics and media, in ways many of us don’t realize yet.

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington D.C., a smart, fast-talking dynamo who’s to deep digital thinking what Jacques Cousteau was to oceans. Which is to say, where others see a new fish, he discerns the whole school, sees where it’s headed and delves into patterns and secrets of the species.

Chester came to Burlington recently to give a talk at Champlain College called “Digital Media at the Crossroads,” and it was eye-opening, worrying and a chance to listen to someone who has more information at his fingertips and astute observations in his brain than most of us could ever hope to gather. The former investigative reporter and filmmaker, dubbed a “Paul Revere of media reform,” has been doing public advocacy for more than three decades.

Scott Campitelli, executive director of RETN (Regional Educational Technology Network), said in introducing Chester that he would provide “a good deal of food for thought” about the “snake oil salesmen of the 21st century.” (RETN, Vermont Community Access Media and Channel 17/Town Meeting Television sponsored Chester’s talk, available for streaming at MyMediaVt.net).

Chester said at the outset that much of what he would say focuses on the “negative” and that he would used Google and Facebook as examples because they are such goliaths, not because they are all bad. But he made it clear as well that while social media provide a service many people love, they are not in it for altruistic purposes.

The critical question, he said, is this: “The Internet is a powerful, wonderful empowering tool, but who is actually going to control most of it?”

Noting that radio and television were similarly hailed as liberating mediums that would enhance democracy, Chester said Pollyanna is at work again. “What’s happening is complete deja vu,” he said.

Thanks to technological advances -- mobile platforms, broadband, cheaper computers, social media -- all digital acts are now seen as a commercial opportunity, being subverted, Chester said, for “advertising and marketing and data collection and branding.”

“At the heart of the problem is this pervasive data collection about each and every one of us. It’s a system that has accelerated in the last two to three years,” he said. What we buy, do and read, who we hang with, is all being collected and merged with the mobile Web, where phones already know where users are.

Chester mixed his talk with video of real -- in some cases, surreal -- ad pitches by the companies that have cropped up to mine data, sell it, create profiles of us, even predict what we will do or buy (“psychographics” and “predictive analytics”) based on the bits and bytes we leave in a data trail on the Web or our mobile phones.

One such example was Xasis, a multinational advertising and marketing ”media company for the digital age” that promises “a powerful return on investment.” How? “We transform data into vivid audience portraits,” their video says, to create “resonant connections” by collecting data from all of our digital connections.

Which Chester points out is another way of saying they collect and sell personal information so corporations can market or sell you something.

Chester said because of “astounding” technological innovations, mostly by U.S. companies, “there is a global digital collection arms race” under way that has drawn hundreds of billions of dollars in investment.

The upshot is, he said, that “we are being sold as chattel to the highest bidder,” a process, he added, that can now occur in real-time ad exchanges in about 20 milliseconds when someone wants information about us. By 2015, the digital advertising market is expected to generate $42 billion, he said.

Those data trails, Chester added, can reveal sexual preferences, likes and dislikes, ethnicity, political views, whether you pay bills on time, are behind on your credit card, and a whole lot more. “I find this system not only worrying for privacy but dehumanizing.”

One particularly startling example Chester gave is those helpful mortgage or payment calculators found online. If you figured running some mortgage or auto payment costs on the Web was harmless, think again. That information was stored and can be tied back to you to hint at your wealth, that you’re in the market to buy, and give out other private financial information you have no intention of releasing, he said.

Particularly concerning to Chester is the way some of this data might be used in subtle discrimination against the poor or certain ethnic groups by steering away ad dollars or business. As an example, he said newspapers or Web sites whose readers are found to be less well off may not get ad dollars, or based on anonymous data, advertisers may shy away from some websites because they want to reach the “right people,” diminishing diversity on the Web.

Another major issue is use of data by politicians for more effective and sophisticated marketing, and the implications for a democratic society, he said. Chester played a video extolling the virtues of “neuro-scientific” programs that use 2000 data points on 64 measures to figure out what we are likely to do or want -- the controversial “subliminal advertising” of the 1950s and 60s on steroids.

“I couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to,” he joked.

Two of the biggest players jumping into the digital advertising race -- with dire consequences for health, he warned-- are pharmaceutical and junk- food companies. By mining data on visitors to a site on, say, diabetes, Big Pharma companies can push their drugs and target those visitors with drug ads.

As for Facebook and other social media, the digital ad collectors are “scraping” them for valuable data, and can even track where your mouse lands on a website page. “Like” Coke or Bud Light on Facebook? Be sure that such data is being stored and compiled for marketing use, Chester says, with advertisers especially interested in collecting such info on teens.

With ad and data mining agencies fighting to keep the issue under wraps, Chester said he is not encouraged by the position of the Obama Administration, which seems reticent to harm a major economic growth area by intervening on behalf of privacy.

He said the key for the public is to push for privacy always as the “default” position, instead of having to “opt out” if you want data kept private – a process Facebook makes difficult for users to find and use. Now, the default is that everything is collected.

According to Chester, a lot of corporate money is pushing to keep U.S. privacy laws on the Internet weak. In Asia, such laws are “nonexistent,” he said, which has serious implications for Chinese users.

“They will create a model that doesn’t serve the public interest,” he warned.

“What we need is a balance, and American companies to act responsibly,” Chester said.

For more information:

Center for Digital Democracy: www.democraticmedia.org

Electronic Privacy Informaton Center: www.epic.org
Digital ads: www.digitalads.org
Inside Facebook: www.insidefacebook.com
Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue: www.tacd.org

Andrew Nemethy

About Andrew

Veteran journalist, editor, writer and essayist Andrew Nemethy has spent more than three decades following his muse, nose for news, eclectic interests and passion for the public’s interest from his home in Calais, close to the state capital. A shy egotist, he’s obligated to note he’s an award-winning reporter and writer and a John J. McCloy Journalism Fellow. His stories have appeared on the cover of magazines from Yankee to Travel & Leisure and in numerous national newspapers. He is also one of Vermont Life’s most prolific authors and author of Travel Vermont. His Vermont media background includes three stints with the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus as both writer and editor. A world traveler born in Austria, he has a master’s degree from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and is a Vietnam veteran and avid outdoor enthusiast. He is currently working on two non-fiction book projects.

Email: anemethy@vtdigger.org

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