Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Your Privacy Is Someone Else's Profit

By Onnesha Roychoudhuri, AlterNet. Posted October 29, 2007.

Private companies have more control over our personal information than we do, as the new book, iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era, explains.

On the 24th of October, presidential candidate Barack Obama, D-Ill., added his name to the list of senators, led by Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who oppose immunity for telecoms who have participated in domestic spying. As this debate heats up in the Senate and in the papers, Americans are confronted with an unsettling reality: Private companies have more control over our personal information than we do.

While the interactive revolution was touted as the democratization of information, it has also greatly accelerated the consolidation of power in the hands of both government and industry. Whether we're talking on our cell phones, paying bills online, or doing research for a paper, our communications now leave an elaborate footprint. It is these footprints that advertisers are so hungrily compiling, creating massive databases to track our daily movements in order to better pitch us products down the line -- or to share with the government.

Mark Andrejevic's new book iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era explores the implications of the disenfranchising of Americans in the interactive era. Who owns our information? How is it shared? How will advertisers and the government use our information in the future? Andrejevic sat down with AlterNet to share what he's learned through his research.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: Throughout the book, you argue that interactivity does not necessarily mean democratization. Can you explain?

Mark Andrejevic: Living through the '90s, there was this euphoric set of predictions about the empowering and democratizing capacity of the new medium. I read that against what the current political and economic situation looks like today. We live in a society that has become increasingly economically stratified in the past decade and also increasingly unresponsive democratically.

Yet we're still bombarded with the type of claims that Time magazine made when it named "us" as the person of the year. Time says that the current situation is about the many wresting power from the few and how this is going to transform the world. The book documents a whole barrage of these types of claims. Very often they're made in the abstract: "Interactivity will have the power to challenge entrenched monopolies and overturn elitist hierarchies," "It allows the public to seize the means of production." I'm not out to debunk the claim that this potential exists. What concerns me is the way in which the celebration of the potential so quickly slides into a claim that this potential is being actualized. What we have to do is find a way to distinguish between the promise that resides in these interactive technologies and their actual application. And then to be able to distinguish between which applications live up to that promise and which don't.

OR: What are some of the technologies that fail to live up to the promise?

MA: TiVo is basically a market research technology. The people who came up with the idea thought they'd get between viewers and broadcasters. This is a quantum leap in the ability to measure the audience, facilitated by these interactive technologies. When TiVo came out, the New York Times said that against the background of TV, the history of commercial broadcasting looks like a Stalinist plot erected from above. The implication was that we were now overcoming the planned economy of mass society and realizing the true emancipating potential of this interactive society.

Similarly, Wired magazine has recently been making a big deal out of cloud computing. This is the movement of data, resources and even software onto the servers of companies like Google and Yahoo that makes it possible for us to access our data wherever we go. The way Wired magazine puts it, our information and our data resources are moving into the "Internet cloud." That makes it sound so airy and free, when, in reality, what's happening is our information is moving into these huge server farms that are privately owned and controlled. They're not cloudy; they're these huge constructions that Google is building along the Columbia River Gorge. Once we put our data there, it can be sorted, aggregated, mined. It becomes a huge treasure trove of information that these commercial organizations have control over and that very likely, the government is going to become increasingly interested in.

OR: You write that many of these technologies create a situation in which we the watchers are in turn being watched. The history of this has its roots in advertisers seeking information on the audience. One particularly poignant example of this was your discussion of Archibald Crossley, father of the ratings system, rooting through peoples' garbage to find out what people were consuming.


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Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. A former assistant editor of AlterNet.org, she has written for AlterNet, The American Prospect, MotherJones.com, In These Times, Huffington Post, Truthdig, PopMatters, and Women's eNews.

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