Your Inquirer Profoundly

Your Inquirer Profoundly offers scathing commentary and raw insight about the social, political and cultural developments of our time.

How Shady Does An Industry Have to Be to Own Your Shadow?

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Remember when you owned your shadow? If you were born in the digital age you don’t. That’s because your data shadow, the digital dossier that makes up your aggregated electronic existence in the information age is the property of data collection agencies that profit off the distribution and resale of you in raw data form. In 1965 the Bureau of the Budget proposed building a single national data center to store electronic records of every US citizens personal information including, but not limited to, social security numbers, tax records, proof of citizenship and criminal records. The proposal was scrapped after concerns over privacy invasion spurred public outrage.

Flash forward to 2012. Enter Facebook, Amazon, Pay Pal, Experian Credit Reports, and Viagra spam campaigns. How did these companies become immensely wealthy overnight? And why does an image of Atlas Shrugged’s book cover appear in the ad space of your inbox and flash on your computer screen as a pop-up? Does this have anything to do with your attendance at a Paul Ryan fundraiser? or are web marketers promoting rational egoism again?

What’s happened is companies like the aforementioned have become giants in the marketplace with the support of sophisticated data collecting technologies. Private databases sell personal information about your transaction history, physical location, spending and web browsing habits and virtually any other kind of information about you that can be stored electronically used to anticipate what kinds of goods and services you are likely to purchase. Many feel they cannot negotiate modernity without continuously disclosing personal information. This fact has habituated Americans to radically diminished expectations for ownership of their personal information. This diminished expectation is further exacerbated by the abundance of incentives you are given to reveal information about yourself to a variety of demanders providing them with data in exchange for an equally great variety of discounts and shopping rewards. Yet this tradeoff is rarely examined critically. The burgeoning personal data industry demonstrates the lack of resistance these agencies face when collecting information about where you are, how you behave and what you are likely to consume. Yet widespread distrust of these business practices does not mirror the national suspicion that arose after the government proposed to create a single database over fifty years ago. Have we deluded ourselves into thinking that privately owned databases do not pose the same privacy concerns as a federal data center would? Are the carrots you receive for the data shadow you leave worth your potential loss of agency when that data is used against you?

The reality is data collecting, warehousing, mining and selling goes beyond marketing, convenient shopping and sweet deals. Insidious applications of this technology now surround us. No reward points can assuage the fact that every transaction we make is recorded, databased and sold to an interested third-party without our being informed. What good are savings reaped from gas rewards cards if every time your EZ-Pass is scanned that information is sold to auto insurance companies eager to take off that low mileage discount upon policy renewal and just when you thought you had devised the perfect strategy to cut back on commuting expenses. Maybe you accept the tracking of your movement on the grounds that you travel on public transportation roots. Do you extend the same indifference to the monitoring of all electronic communication?

In 2006 both AT&T and Verizon agreed to share phone call records of all their subscribers with the NSA’s program Stellar Wind. Subsequently communication interceptors have been installed at dozens of hubs across the country allowing for the effective aggregation of all phone calls, email and text transmissions that travel via fiber optic cables. In other words, people like Adrienne Klein an NSA voice interceptor at Fort Meade Georgia, do actually listen to phone calls from numbers that have been flagged by dragnet programs for showing “suspicious patterns of use” and those suspicious patterns can be tripped by Ramadan Shallah or someone as innocuous as Molly Shannon. It could also be the case that you are willing to relinquish former protections that prohibited the recording of your conversations, written and spoken for the sake of maintaining national security. So, how would you feel if your affair was disclosed to your significant other after a private investigator requested your driving record from Microdesign’s Electronic Toll Collection database?  Every time you drive through a toll booth a license plate scanner tracks your movements, databases them and sells them to interested marketing companies, government agencies and snoops for hire.

These examples, although few, sufficiently illuminate a shady industry that has serious implications on how we live in a society that monitors our transactions, movements, and conversations. The irony is that after rejecting plans to build a national data base we have witnessed the emergence of the database nation comprised of thousands of data agencies owned by both private companies and government. The superabundance of material rewards has conditioned Americans to disclose details that make up their lives to any party that offers a coupon for anything. Worse, laws have been passed without the slightest debate that has legalized governmental monitoring of nearly all of our actions as long as that monitoring is of “data patterns, not people”.

In the half century since the nation spoke out against building a national database private interests buttressed by favorable legislation have constructed a panopticon, imprisoning your electronic shadow in a variety of different databases with different uses for your personal information. Whether a marketing company is directing a product to you, a credit bureau is tracking your payments, or a surveillance camera is recording your behavior, the reality is that multiple entities have a claim on your aggregated electronic existence. If you consider how inextricably linked you are to the communication networks that span the globe you may realize that your data shadow is an extension of your personhood, a digital self that you that you don’t own. If not owning your shadow is not alarming you have succeeded in objectifying yourself as raw data for the processing.

-your inquirer profoundly

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