Antony Davies & James Harrigan: Tech companies are watching; do we care? |
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Antony Davies & James Harrigan: Tech companies are watching; do we care?

Antony Davies and James Harrigan

Google Assistant records conversations, and now those recordings have been leaked to the public. Is anyone really surprised? Judging by Google’s stock price, the answer is a resounding “no.” Consumers introduced listening devices into their homes, and they seem relatively blasé now that humans on the other ends of those devices have, in fact, listened.

Understandably, people become agitated when their banking information, passwords or NC-17 pictures are made public. But apart from those things, people seem unbothered when their personal information reaches a wider, unintended audience. How do we know? Because billions of people go right on using Facebook, Twitter, Google and other “free” services despite the fact that (almost) all of us know that these companies track our every move. They record where we are, with whom we are, what we buy and even what we say. Companies say they use this information to provide us with “better user experiences.” And they do. But their ultimate goal isn’t a better user experience. Their ultimate goal is to make money from our information.

We think of ourselves as Google’s, Instagram’s and Twitter’s customers. This is incorrect. Advertisers are the customers. We are the product. This is fine so long as we are satisfied with the services we receive in trade for our information. But what about when there is no trade? What about when the government collects information about us without our consent?

Government data collection is so pervasive that it is impossible even to know when we are being surveilled. We do know that the FBI once wanted Apple to build a backdoor into iPhones, U.S. border agents demand access to citizens’ cellphones and the Trump administration is looking to ban certain forms of encryption on popular apps. Many willingly bring digital assistants into their homes, but no one invites Big Brother. Given the government’s intelligence-gathering apparatus and the ease with which the government can draft private companies into the information-collection game, there Big Brother sits just the same.

Where businesses are concerned, people have the ability to walk away. If they become irritated that Alexa records their conversations, or that Google observes their web searches, there are alternate assistants and search engines. And where those alternatives don’t suffice, there is the final option of not using these things at all.

Because people can walk away from businesses, two important incentives emerge. First, these companies have a profit incentive to protect personal information and to use it judiciously. When companies fail in this, the second incentive emerges. Upstart entrepreneurs have a profit incentive to create alternatives that do better. This system doesn’t work perfectly, as the recent Google data leak demonstrates, but it is self-correcting. The more problems that emerge and the greater the concern they pose to users, the greater is the profit opportunity for entrepreneurs to come up with better solutions.

But this feedback system is absent where government is concerned. Government can invade anyone’s privacy with near impunity. People should pay attention, perhaps a lot more attention than they presently do, to both businesses and government. But they should be especially suspicious of government when it comes to prying into their private lives. Why? Because no matter what government does, there is no option to walk away.

Antony Davies is an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James Harrigan teaches in the department of Political Economy and Moral Science at the University of Arizona. They host the weekly podcast Words and Numbers.

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