Wyatt Emmerich: Sacrificing privacy for free apps

 

Wyatt Emmerich

 

 

Like lobsters in the slowly heating pot, Americans are getting cooked without even knowing it. In exchange for free apps on our phones, we are giving up every smidgen of our privacy. 

 

It's been such a gradual process, most of us don't realize what is happening. Google, Facebook, Amazon and Big Data are observing our every word and move and storing this vast mountain of personal data on giant remote computers. 

 

Armies of programmers are designing artificial intelligence software to use this personal information to suck us even further into this addictive digital swamp. The goal is to make money by manipulating our behavior. 

 

Cell phone location services track our every move. Apps can secretly turn on our smartphone microphones, record our conversations and store and scan the words. 

 

Gmail is free! How great is that! Not so great when you realize every email you have written is also stored and scanned. 

 

Soon profiles of every single American will be able to be stored on a thumb drive. It will be everywhere. The genie will soon be out of the bottle and our concept of privacy will be a thing of the past. 

 

Get ready for the day a rogue website lets you type in the name of any person and view that person's entire search history, movements, purchases and any other relevant information. 

 

Europeans are fighting back. The Euro Zone has passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which gives individuals ownership of their personal data. Facebook, Google and Big Data are now in violation of the law if they use your data without permission. And these tech companies cannot force you to give them permission as a requirement to use their software. This is a sea change and we are just now beginning to see the ramifications of these new European privacy laws. 

 

Meanwhile, America is a different story. We have no such laws at all. With their tens of billions in profits, Facebook and Google can hire a mountain of lobbyists to fight for the status quo. Even worse, the FBI, CIA and NSA are now working with these mega tech companies to spy on American citizens. 

 

The Alexa, Siri, Echo and other home listening devices are the worst. I have a friend who did an experiment. Even though he has no dog, he started talking at home about feeding and walking his dog. Sure enough, in a few days, his phone and computer started showing dog food and pet store ads.  

 

Just last week the Wall Street Journal ran a front page expose on how Facebook is massively invading Americans' privacy. 

 

Facebook provided developers with software that greatly reduced app development time. What Facebook never revealed was that this software embedding code sent user information back to Facebook. These are apps that have nothing to do with Facebook's social media platform. 

 

One app, used by millions of American women, helped women track their menstrual cycles. As a result, Facebook was able to know when millions of women were starting their periods, presumably to start sending them digital tampon ads. 

 

George Orwell's book "1984" has come true. But it's not the government doing it. It's the massively powerful tech triopoly of Facebook, Google and Amazon. 

 

Annihilating your privacy is not the only damage Big Data has done to our society. It is destroying professional journalism, one of the bedrocks of our democratic system. 

 

How surprised am I, a traditional newspaper publisher for 40 years, to find myself in the middle of this titanic struggle. 

 

Here in Jackson, the Clarion-Ledger used to have hundreds of reporters, dozens of whom kept government and business honest by reporting on corruption and misdeeds. Those journalists are now gone and corruption is rampant. The cost to Mississippi taxpayers is far greater than subscription money saved replacing it with free internet news. 

 

This is because Facebook and Google scrape news from traditional sources with real salaried journalists and then use it to attract advertising eyeballs. It's a completely automated system with no journalists. Real news is supplanted by pet cat and entree photos, or worse, completely fabricated content designed to lure naive viewers. 

 

Advertisers are enamored with all the bells and whistles of digital advertising. As a result, traditional newspapers and television struggle to fund real newsgathering by trained journalists. Rumors and innuendos posted by amateurs on blogs and social media platforms are replacing real news - a centuries-old process of refining ethics and standards to achieve accuracy and objectivity as best as humanly possible. 

 

Let me ask you this: Why has Congress exempted Facebook and Google - virtual monopolies - from centuries-old libel and slander common law that tens of thousands of traditional media companies must abide by day in and day out? 

 

To add salt to this gaping wound, the digital ad world is rife with fraud. 

 

In a recent expose, national website Buzz Feed explained how digital ad fraud works: 

 

The first step to creating convincing fake traffic is to acquire apps used by actual human users. The fraudsters study the behavior of the users and then create bots -- automated computer programs -- that mimic the same actions. The bots are loaded onto servers that contain specialized software that enables the bots to generate traffic within the specific apps. 

 

In the case of websites in the scheme, the bots visit them using virtual web browsers that help present this traffic as human. In both cases, the fake traffic generates ad views, which in turn earns revenue. 

 

The blending of real humans with bots helps defeat systems built to detect fake traffic, because the real traffic and fake traffic look almost exactly the same. 

 

Procter and Gamble just cut their digital advertising by $200 million and saw no effect on sales, leading the company to question the effectiveness of digital advertising. 

 

Digital advertising sells itself as transparent, producing a mountain of data. Only problem: No one knows if that data is real. It's just images on a screen, easily faked. 

 

Meanwhile, my company's newspapers and magazines are a real product that you can touch, see and feel. It is not vaporware. It is tangible. It is real. It can't be faked. Our completely local websites with local ads aren't connected to the national digital ad networks that are rife with fraud. 

 

In most of our communities, we are the only source of news - just a handful of reporters for tens of thousands of American citizens. We are facing huge challenges to survive. Already there are vast "news deserts" across the American heartland. Corruption proliferates. 

 

Readers and advertisers must support newspapers or they will die. And when they die, they will be sorely missed and hard to bring back. Then Facebook, Google and Amazon will suck out every penny from your communities and give nothing back in return, all the while spying, reporting and profiting from your every word and every move. 

 

Big Brother is here. He walked right through our front door as we lobsters were enjoying a nice warm bath. 

 

Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] 

 

 

 

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