Is the whole world spying on us?

Privacy is becoming a more pressing issue by the day. At the time of writing this, the whole world has its eyes on China and its spying on its citizens and users of apps originating in China. But outside of this as well, privacy is one of the most popular and pressing conversation topics in digital media. The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal with Facebook still has the world looking critically at the company, and rightfully so. But what if I told you that you’re literally being spied on every hour of every day? Yes, you! You don’t even need to live in China to be under constant surveillance. But how, and where? Allow me to explain.

Facebook’s and Google’s not-so-tasty cookies

If you have been anywhere on the internet in the past year, you probably have been asked at least once to give your “Cookie preferences” on a site. And I’m willing to bet that, like me, you most likely hit “Accept all” without a second thought and move on with your life. But have you ever stopped to wonder what exactly you’re accepting there? What are cookies really?

What we know online as a “cookie” is essentially a small text file that does things like track your browsing behaviour. If you have to log in to a site, there will most likely be a cookie that will keep you logged in for the next time you visit the site. These cookies get placed onto the hard drive of your computer or phone. Some of them will be automatically deleted when you leave a site, others will stay behind on your device indefinitely. While some of these, like the ones that can keep you logged in, are pretty handy, not all of them are to our benefit. This is where “tracking cookies” come in. These are cookies that advertisers can get permission to put on a site. When you visit this site, the advertiser will get information that you visited this place. If you then also visit other sites that they have placed cookies on, they can basically form a list of sites you visited, and target advertisements at you that reflect your browsing behaviour. Did you visit a bunch of pages on Amazon looking at games? Boom, suddenly you will get ads on YouTube and Facebook from game stores, game companies and similar content.

So to answer the question “What are you accepting when you accept cookies?”: you are giving advertisers the right to look over your shoulder as you browse around the internet, and use that data for their own benefits.

Your phone has ears, and it’s listening

Whether you belong to Team Samsung or Team Apple, your phone is bound to have some sort of “voice assistant”. Alexa, Siri, Bixby, the Google Assistant, pick your poison. Isn’t it convenient to be able to shout to your phone, or your Alexa, or your Google Home, and just have it do things for you? It really is! But have you ever stopped to consider that to be able to respond to the phrase “Alexa”, or “Hey Google!”, it needs to be constantly listening out for your voice? After all, how else would it know if you’re speaking to it? And Google needs a way to train its Assistant to be able to recognise and differentiate between different people’s voices, so why not just always listen and record the data it hears? And that’s exactly what it does. Your phone, your Alexa, your Google Home, they all listen to everything you do at every hour of the day, trying to make sense of what you’re saying. And make no mistake, Google uses this data for targeted ads as well! So if you ever had a long conversation with your friend about how much want that new game, now you know why you suddenly get more ads for that game.

In short, love it or hate it, companies are constantly looking over our shoulders and spying on what we do in our private life, both online and offline. 20 years ago, that was seen as a dystopia. Now, it’s our everyday reality.