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How Online Surveillance Changes Us

Prof. Rom Feria

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Online surveillance, just like in real life, is when your actions are being monitored by someone else. Nobody wants to be surveilled, as it is a violation of one’s privacy. When we were teenagers, we made it a huge deal when parents snoop on us, grill us on our whereabouts, what we did, with whom, etc. We didn’t like it when parents take our devices and read our messages, nor do we like parents looking at our photo albums, e-mail and our browsing history. And even going to the extreme of constant location tracking! Yes, it is never comfortable! Our behaviors change when we are being observed—and this is a fact! And yet, we put all our trust on our parents, right?

Now, replace parents with Google and Facebook (among other surveillance capitalists), companies that you won’t rely on even if your life depends on it, but you are comfortable allowing them to observe you, collect all our data (online behavior), and worse, manipulate you (personalization leading to the filter bubble, and micro-targeting to influence you). When our parents tell us what we can and can’t do, when they try to control and restrict our choices, we rebel?—?but with Google and Facebook, it is OK. Why?

Personally, Google and Facebook changed the way I use the internet. In most technologies, I am an early adopter, which allowed me to see the internet grow from the days of 1200 baud dial-up speeds with UUCP, archie, veronica, gopher, online bulletin board systems (BBS), and, of course, Usenet newsgroups, to the internet that we all know today. During the early days and until recently, I have conversed with people from all over the world, exchanged postal addresses (I collected postcards from all over back then), posted personal photos (never the NSFW kind) and videos, shared my locations, and more. You see, I believed in the open internet.

Google and Facebook’s extensive data collection, with and without our consent, exploited the openness of the internet for their own greed. They saw that people are willing to share their personal information (posting status, photos and videos, among others)—and they collected and monetized it, and going to the extreme of manipulation (in guise of engagement) leading to abuse. Google tells you what search results you should see, and Facebook tells you who your important friends are (by manipulating what you see on your timeline). Both Google and Facebook also decide which news you should read?—?pushing for polarizing and fake news to drive more engagement, which means more data for them to collect. And YOU ARE OK with that!

Well, I am NOT OK with your surveillance, Facebook! I ditched Facebook, and the Facebook-owned Instagram (I don’t use WhatsApp)—downloaded all my data (you should, so you know what it has collected about you, mostly what you volunteered, but not what Facebook bought from other third-party data collectors), and deleted the account. I don’t post any photo or video of my family?—?but instead share them with family members via iCloud Shared Album or Flickr (privately).

I am NOT OK with your surveillance, Google! I drastically reduced the Google services that I use (only thing left is the Google App for Edu account). Replaced Google Search with DuckDuckGo. Stopped using Gmail, in favor of protonmail.com and runbox.com. No Google Drive, instead, I use Resilio Sync and use my own storage. Google Docs is replaced with Apple’s iWork and Quip. Chrome is replaced with Safari and Firefox (on Linux). I don’t use Google Photo (as photos there are used to train Google’s machine learning algorithms), instead I use iCloud, Flickr and store photos and videos locally, in full resolution. As for Google-owned YouTube, I view YouTube videos via the invidio.us interface (and in most cases, I download the video). Lastly, I am an early adopter, as I mentioned above, so I was first to use Android?—?but since Android is one big data collector, I dumped it as well (I used to carry both an Android and an iOS smartphone). You can use Android without the Google trackers by replacing the operating system with LineageOS or GrapheneOS, but only if you know what you are doing?—?otherwise, avoid Android.

Whilst refraining from using Google and Facebook is ideal, they still track you (and collect your data) from websites and mobile apps that use their services. So, you need to block them using browser plug-ins like uBlock Origin and Better Blocker. For other applications, mobile or desktop, I use LittleSnitch on the Mac, and a VPN with tracker blockers (I use Windscribe). You can go to the extreme of filtering all your network traffic and stopping any connection to Google and Facebook servers (I use pi-hole.net, nextdns.com), too, which is what I did!

I live without Google and Facebook?—?contrary to what a lot of people think that they’re indispensable. For example, I don’t miss knowing what my 6th grade classmate had for Christmas dinner! I also don’t care what e-mail reply suggestions Gmail has. Do I suffer from FOMO? No, I have JOMO, and you should, too. Let 2020 be the year that you start knowing the dangers of being surveilled by Google and Facebook.

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