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Smart technologies in your smartphone, collection and analysis of big data
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Smart technologies in your smartphone, collection and analysis of big data

The Birds Aren’t Real. But Maybe the Spying Is.

A defense of our fundamental right to privacy

In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower gave a nationally televised farewell speech in which he warned of the growing power of the military-industrial complex—the alliance between the nation’s armed forces and defense contractors campaigning for an arsenal of expensive weapons that makes the military stronger, companies richer, and wars more alluring.

In 2018, Apple CEO Tim Cook invoked memories of Eisenhower when he warned of the growing power of the data-industrial complex—an alliance between those who collect and analyze personal data and the businesses and governments that use these data:

Our own information from the everyday to the deeply personal is being weaponized against us with military efficiency. We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences. This is surveillance.

Michael Kan, “Tim Cook: Our Data Is Being “Weaponized Against Us”” at PCMag (October 24, 2018)

Big Business and Big Government monitor our credit cards, bank accounts, computers, and telephones; watch us on surveillance cameras; and purchase data from firms dedicated to finding out everything they can about each and every one of us.

Businesses manipulate us into buying things. Politicians steer us into supporting them and their policies. Governments monitor us. The costs are not only the money we squander buying things we don’t need, the manipulation of our opinions, and the diversion of resources to tracking us but, more profoundly, the erosion of our fundamental right to privacy. There is no compelling reason for businesses to know our income, hobbies, and sexual preferences. There is no compelling reason for politicians to know our opinions about them and their positions. There are good reasons for secret ballots. There is no compelling reason for governments to know who our friends are, what we read and write, where we go, and what we do.

It was once hoped that technology would allow citizens to communicate widely and organize resistance efforts against totalitarian governments that limit freedom of expression and assembly. It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, technology allows repressive governments to monitor citizens more closely and suppress dissent more effectively.

The Chinese government tracks what people buy, where they go, what they do, and anything else that might suggest that a person is untrustworthy and might foment political unrest. Obedient citizens who are assigned high social credit scores by the computer algorithm receive price discounts, pay low insurance rates, and can rent apartments without making deposits. Those given low scores are not permitted to buy certain things and must pay more for what they are allowed to purchase. Their travel options and living arrangements are limited and they may be monitored closely by the police. One company’s chief executive said that these scores “ensure that the bad people in society don’t have a place to go, while good people can move freely and without obstruction.”

In Xinjiang, a northwestern province in China where half the population is Muslim Turkic peoples, the government monitors the population endlessly with thousands of CCTV cameras. All smartphones contain spyware that records where people go and everything they do with their phones. Anything done on computers is monitored and recorded, too. Based on these data, every citizen’s “reliability status” is continuously assessed and more than a million Uyghurs have been sent to re-education camps or have simply disappeared.

But most citizens would not need to be incarcerated. People will self-censor if they know that they are likely being monitored and may be punished. The mere existence (or even rumors of the existence) of mass surveillance programs can crush freedoms.

After Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) was using Facebook, Google, and Microsoft servers to track online communications, Wikipedia searches for keywords like “jihad” and “chemical weapon” declined precipitously. Presumably, searchers feared that the NSA or some other government agency might be monitoring them. Better to avoid suspicion than to risk the wrath of bureaucrats.

Snowden also revealed that a secret court order had compelled Verizon to give the NSA all of its telephone records on an ongoing daily basis. People who assume that the NSA is listening to their phone conversations may understandably avoid using words that might be misconstrued. When citizens assume that the government is surveilling every action, it is like living in a prison.

Collateral damage from the data-industrial complex includes a growing distrust of businesses and governments. As we have come to realize how closely our behavior is being monitored, many have come to resent it. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg once called people who trusted him with their data “dumb f**ks.”

But some of the dummies are waking up and not taking it anymore. Nordstrom, for example, stopped using wi-fi sensors to track customers in their stores the day after a CBS affiliate reported the snooping. Urban Outfitters was hit with a class-action lawsuit for falsely telling shoppers paying by credit card that they have to tell the store their ZIP code, which can then be used to determine their home addresses. In one study, one-third of those surveyed reported that they had stopped using a website or buying from a company because of privacy issues. Some people have gone back to paying cash and not buying anything over the Internet. Customers, understandably, may not want just anyone to know how much alcohol, laxatives, condoms, and Viagra they buy.

Distrust can quickly turn into paranoia. A recent survey found that 44% of Republicans, 24% of independents, and 19% of Democrats believe that Bill Gates is developing a COVID-19 vaccine that will implant microchips in us so that our movements can be monitored.

“Birds Aren’t Real! Pass it on! …”

In 2017, a college student started the “Birds Aren’t Real” conspiracy theory. The claim is that real birds were exterminated by the government and replaced with drones that are disguised as birds so as to monitor us, which gives “bird watching” a whole new meaning.

Some facts underlie the conspiracy claims. For more than a century, pigeons have been used to take aerial photographs with cameras strapped to their bodies, Surely, the theory runs, the government can now make robotic birds with cameras hidden inside.

Birds Aren’t Real started as a joke and morphed into a marketing opportunity for T-shirts and hats. Now some people actually believe it. Even if you recognize Birds Aren’t Real as satire, the fact that you thought about it for more than a second says something about your propensity for paranoia.

Some might wonder, what harm is there in surveillance if we haven’t done anything wrong? Well, for one thing, surveillance turns the government into our enemy. “Of the people, by the people, for the people” becomes “them versus us”—politicians and bureaucrats doing things to us instead of for us. The political success of outsiders (including professional wrestlers, reality show hosts, animals, and the deceased) is partly a reflection of the perception that the government has become a ruling class whose actions are “of them, by them, for them.”

Less obvious and perhaps more insidious are the myriad ways in which surveillance, real or imagined, crushes our spirit, our spontaneity, our exuberance. We should feel free to dance like no one is watching and sing like no one is listening. But how can we be truly carefree when we think that we are always being watched and listened to?

An essential part of being human is being ourselves, not what the government wants us to be. It includes sometimes being silly, sometimes sad, sometimes exhilarated. An essential part of being human is knowing that we have a right to privacy.

The promise of technology is that it will liberate us from mindless tasks. The peril is that the surveillance enabled by technology will enslave us. Instead of computers becoming more like humans, we are in danger of becoming more like computers.

Further reading:

China: Sophisticated surveillance decides who gets sent to Uyghur camps. The leak of documents from police in Karakax County in Xinjiang reveal the details of everyday life that can send a Uyghur to the camps.


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Gary N. Smith

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Gary N. Smith is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College. His research on financial markets statistical reasoning, and artificial intelligence, often involves stock market anomalies, statistical fallacies, and the misuse of data have been widely cited. He is the author of dozens of research articles and 16 books, most recently, Distrust: Big Data, Data-Torturing, and the Assault on Science, Oxford University Press, 2023.

The Birds Aren’t Real. But Maybe the Spying Is.