Last week, Apple generously uploaded the new U2 album Songs of Innocence for free to all its iTunes user accounts. Isn’t that nice? Not everyone thought so. They claimed it was presumptuous and invasive for iTunes to access their user accounts and upload music they didn’t want without their permission. Maybe it was. Nonetheless, it’s hardly the first time iTunes has done so. When you sign up for iTunes, it comes preloaded with music.
On the other hand, loads of people thought it was awesome. Yay! Free U2!
On the third hand, many people thought it was an absolute non-issue. Who cares?
One thing is certain – it drew a great deal of attention to the new U2 album, which was certainly not guaranteed otherwise. It was a good media stunt.
The Huffington Post recently published an expose identifying the breadth of permissions required to use Facebook’s Messenger app. Its paranoid message (which has since been toned down and corrected) warned Messenger users that the app could access a ton of their data and a variety of functions on their phones. Users freaked and fretted that Facebook would now be recording their conversations and taking their photographs. The HuffPo article went viral, shared endlessly on every social platform. Many people vowed not to use Messenger. Well, I hope they deleted Facebook too, since it requires almost the same permissions, as do many popular smartphone apps.
I have a startling revelation for you. Whether you have a smartphone or not, if you use Google for any service at all, if you use any social media platform at all–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram–any at all, if you use iTunes or Dropbox or Amazon or Pandora, if you have a Kindle or a Nook–in other words, if you are on the Internet–your account information is open to the company you are interacting with, and that company is recording data about you. Some of that data will be personally traceable. Much of it won’t.
Freaking out about Internet privacy is virtually pointless. If you use the Internet, you are choosing to let all of these companies track your usage. Nearly every website is attached to a Google Analytics account which tracks who visits the site. You’re reading my blog. I can’t see your name or who you are specifically, but I know the city you live in and how you came to my blog, and much else besides. And I’m small potatoes. I use that information to make my site better. But I’m no different from any other blog out there. We all do it.
Whether a company or a website discloses that information publicly, like Facebook and iTunes do in those long Privacy Statements you ignore before you click “Accept”, or they post that information in small print at the bottom of a website, as I do, your actions on the Internet are being tracked.
Businesses on the Internet make money through ads. Popular sites like Facebook and Google and Amazon collect a lot of data. Third party businesses pay those companies to use that data when they take out Google or Facebook ads which target likely customers. Internet data is big business. It’s how Facebook and Google make money. They don’t exist as public services. They are businesses. They are free to use because they make money by selling data.
Are these companies asking to access your microphone and camera so they can take pictures without your permission? No. They need to have access to your microphone so the app works. They need access to your microphone so you can send voice messages. Will they track how many texts you send and to whom, though? Yes. Will they send texts to your mom without your permission? Probably not. Will they allow a major band to automatically upload an album to your account? Apparently they will.
What can you do?
Get off the Internet and get rid of your smartphone.
Take the time to set your privacy settings. This won’t stop companies from collecting user data. What it will do is keep the public from watching what you do. There are options on both Facebook and Google that allow you to say whether or not you want your data sold to third parties. You may have to dig to find these options. The links above should work. Privacy settings can be time consuming and labyrinthine, but it’s always worth setting them. And relax. Yes, you’re being watched. “Accept” it, but try to keep yourself informed.