Flow Communications

We shuddered in horror when we read about Big Brother watching us in George Orwell’s 1984 and saw the iris-scanning identity spyware imagined in the film Minority Report, based on a Philip K Dick short story. But has science fiction become present reality? How closely are Google, Facebook and other tech giants really watching us – and even listening to us?

The short answer is: very closely. And it’s because most of the time, we (often unwittingly) allow them to.

The other day, I was jarred when my husband’s airline ticket that he had emailed to my Gmail address to print out resulted in his booking – departure and return flights, times and flight numbers – suddenly appearing in my own Google Calendar. Did my Google apps talk to each other? Does Google think it’s being “smart” and useful, and doing me a favour? No, sorry – that kind of intrusion is just creepy.

We’ve all heard similar anecdotes of how technology companies track and monitor our online movements, our purchases and our likes and dislikes to the point of invading our privacy, and then tailor their suggestions and ads according to past activity. Big Brother 2.0 is watching us.

The real question is: do we have to just accept this as the price we pay for online convenience, or can we do more to protect our data and our privacy online?

Can we control what Google does with our data?

According to respected technology magazine Wired, we have three options: we can either trust Google to use our data responsibly, not use Google services at all or limit the information it can gather about us.

If you choose the latter, you can go to the Data and Privacy section on your Google account to turn off tracking and have more control over your data and location history. You can also opt to have Google erase all activity older than three, 18 or 36 months.

Wired, incidentally, confirmed my unsettling experience: “Google also keeps tabs on Gmail messages to monitor your purchases, your trips, your flights and your upcoming bills. This has been going on for a long time, and has been well documented in the past.”

Through virtual assistant apps like Siri and Google Assistant, our phones listen to our requests and act on them.
Through virtual assistant apps, our phones listen to our requests and act on them. (Image: by Omid Armin on Unsplash)

Every step you take, I’ll be watching you

It’s no secret that many online publishers – News24, for example – use tracking code from the likes of Google and Facebook to help them target advertising to the “right” people.

But do we really want these companies to build up detailed profiles of ourselves, our personal information and our browsing habits as we move around the web? How would you feel, for example, being served ads about baby clothes after suffering the trauma of a miscarriage?

According to Princeton researchers who compiled a study of the technology that tracks people’s movements around the web, this practice deserves closer scrutiny from a privacy point of view. It found that Google’s web trackers are present on most of the top million sites in the world. In other words: “If you read or clicked on anything online today, some part of Google probably knows about it.”

Is Google also listening to me?

More food for thought: isn’t it bizarre that sometimes after you’ve spoken to a friend or colleague – perhaps you remarked on how you’d love a new leather wallet – suddenly an ad for the very thing you’ve discussed pops up on your screen? According to the Norton internet security team, your phone is actually listening to you.

Through virtual assistant apps like Siri and Google Assistant, our phones listen to our requests and act on them. But that’s not where it ends: by enabling these voice assistant features, we also (often unknowingly) give our phones permission to listen to our conversations and serve us personalised advertisements based on what they hear. It’s like a verbal search engine.

So no, you’re not imagining things. It’s no coincidence that a verbally expressed wish translates into you getting served ads that eerily seem to have read your mind. The good news is that you can adjust your microphone and virtual assistant permission settings to stop the intrusive eavesdropping.

The world of technology has opened up so many wonderful opportunities to us, but it’s a double-edged sword. Are we selling our souls – in the form of our personal data – in the name of convenience? It’s scary stuff – and we haven’t even touched on Facebook yet.

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