A new report from Amnesty International has revealed how the surveillance and data-based business models of tech giants Google and Facebook threaten some of our most basic human rights.
It’s become second nature to hand-over our personal data and information to these tech companies in return for the use of their free services, but it doesn’t have to and shouldn’t be this way, the report argues. According to the report, titled “Surveillance Giants,” the ways in which Google and Facebook coerce their users to consent to this data-mining and the ways in which their data is subsequently sold and optimized is a threat to fundamental human rights to privacy and the ability to safely express identity.
While the data-centric business practices of Google and Facebook are not unique to these companies, the report contends that as the world’s two top tech giants they are responsible for pioneering and perpetuating them. But what exactly are they doing?
If you’ve ever set-up a Gmail or Facebook account (and you probably have) you’ll be familiar with the targeted ads these free services bombard your feed with. In order to target your feed with ads or information uniquely suited for you, advertisers rely on Facebook and Google to supply a steady stream of personal data about your likes, dislikes, location, friends, etc. From that data, these companies are able to create a marketable entity based on your personal traits.
By agreeing to the initial Terms & Conditions on these sites, we’ve agreed to let them sell our information in whatever way turns them the biggest profit. While Facebook and Google contend that this agreement between themselves and their users counts as knowing consent, Amnesty International report disagrees.
“Put simply, surveillance on such a scale represents an unprecedented interference with the right to privacy, that cannot be compatible with the companies’ responsibility to respect human rights. This goes beyond an intrusion into every aspect of our lives online, and in fact threatens our right to shape and define who we are as autonomous individuals in society.”
Sacrificing personal data may seem innocuous to some users, but it is a particularly insidious part of this agreement, says Amnesty International. Your data may be used not only to better understand our actions but to shape them as well.
Using Cambridge Analytica as a primary example, the report details how the data Facebook and Google sell about us has been repeatedly used to influence what we read, buy and how we vote.
And Amnesty International says that these actions are just the tip of the iceberg.
“These capabilities mean there is a high risk that the companies could directly harm the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom of opinion and expression through their use of algorithmic systems. Furthermore, they risk contributing to abuses of these rights by other actors who are able to access or utilise their models.”
And the trickiest part of all of this, at least for the time being, is that despite becoming aware of these transgressions users still have limited rights when it comes to removing their data from these platforms.
Google and Facebook have both recently announced new initiatives aimed at giving their users more control of their data, including the ability to delete location data on Google (after 3-months) and the ability on Facebook to disconnect (but not delete) data sharing from third-party apps, but Amnesty International says that these efforts still fall short because they don’t address the underlying surveillance business model as a whole.
So, should we throw up are hands in defeat and allow companies like Facebook and Google to continue siphoning off our data?
Not just yet, the report says.
“The scale and complexity of the human rights harms linked to the surveillance-based business will require a ‘smart mix’ of structural solutions. It will take ongoing investigation, analysis and interdisciplinary thinking from a wide range of actors – technologists, academics, civil society, policy experts and policy makers - to arrive at an appropriate set of solutions.”
To that aim the report calls upon state and federal lawmakers, as well as technology companies, to reconsider business models that include an emphasis on human rights and transparency.
The report also emphasized that just because the internet has evolved to be manipulative and exploitive, doesn’t mean it can only exist this way.
“[T]he internet does not need to depend on surveillance,” the report writes. “The serious abuses or privacy, freedom of expression and other human rights are not inherent in the technology behind the internet, but to the business model that has become dominant.”