What We Can Do to Protect Ourselves Amidst the Rise of Technology

Eman Abdurezak, Contributing Writer

With new innovations in technology emerging every day, the internet is becoming more and more convenient. The latest mechanisms are constantly being advertised as devices people didn’t even know they needed, and tasks can now be completed with a single click of a button. While these rapid advancements can seem like a good thing, concerns are constantly being raised about the cost of this newfound ease. Are we sacrificing our privacy to save minutes on a task that could be done on our own? How much are we willing to give up, and to whom?

Much of the uneasiness around today’s state-of-the-art technology comes from distress around smart speakers. Smart speakers, like Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Home, have become very common to have in the house, with 1 in 4 US adults reporting to have a smart speaker. These speakers, according to the Acting Activism Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation Gennie Gebhart, “don’t have to listen. … For Facebook to use voice detection, to find keywords and then map them onto ad preferences, that’s Stone Age targeted advertising technology. There’s much more nefarious and evasive methods and much more invisible methods available to them.” Gebhart went on to explain how Facebook uses Location Services to track where a person is and possibly even what ads they might be standing in front of, which tells your phone that you are interested in the product. Although this may be frightening to some, there are measures to prevent these types of invasions, such as turning Location Services for social media apps off in Settings.

Are we sacrificing our privacy to save minutes on a task that could be done on our own?

Some programmers have created technology to combat and compete with apps that invade the privacy of their users. The popular messaging app Signal was launched in 2018 with the mission of providing a secure space for users to communicate. The app uses end-to-end encryption, so only the sender and receiver can access messages. Applications like \Telegram, Threema, and Wire follow similar protocols.

Advertising has not always taken the form of the ubiquitous, scarily specific content we see in media today. Advertisements became an integral part of our nation’s economy in the early 1900s, when TV and radio commercials made buyers feel as though they were being spoken to directly. Sears pioneered the personalization of commercials by sending out 8,000 postcards to homes in 1892, increasing the amount of orders. You can blame those pesky display ads on AT&T, who created the first banner ad in 1994. Before the 20th century, the success of advertisements reaching the people who were interested was based on pure luck. Now, instead of spending money on buying more ads, companies focus on getting ads to the people who are most likely to interact with them. For example, after surfing the Converse website, an ad for Converse shoes would likely pop up before a YouTube video soon after.

The purpose of personalized advertising is to allow companies to target ads to the demographic who has shown an interest in that specific product or products similar to it. This idea starts to get uncomfortable for users when they realize that all of their searches are being used to contribute to this data using cookies. When this option shows up on websites, many click “OK” without knowing what cookies actually do, which is tracking the information that you have searched in your device’s browser.  

As the internet continues to grow larger, uneducated users are more susceptible to unknowingly giving up their privacy. It is important for people to understand what they may be revealing to the world wide web, and how to proceed with caution to prevent this from happening. Especially during the pandemic, we have established a great reliance on our devices. As consumers feel increasingly lost in protecting their privacy, instruction on how to use the internet and social media safely should be readily available to the public.