The New Big Brother: Why IT Giants Are so Eager to Spy on Us
In August 2021, Google fired 80 employees for spying on users, adding to the 36 breachers of the company’s data use policies sacked last year. On the occasion of Google’s 23rd birthday, RT Documentary reveals why IT giants are so willing to spy on their users.
In the past decades, the internet has become the fulcrum of modern life. There is no escape from it, and, as Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin so accurately understood, everything people do online leaves a trace. If saved and used in the right way, these traces make up a goldmine of data giving priceless insights into people on a personal level and a good read into broader economic, political, and cultural trends.
Google was the first IT company to fully embrace this idea and make fat profits on the data people leave behind. Other companies were swift to join. Facebook, Amazon, Uber, eBay, Apple, Twitter, Spotify, Airbnb – if you look at the bigger picture, you can see that together these companies have turned out devices into bugs incorporated in a massive corporate-owned spying network.
The World Wide Web was built on the leftist idea of equality: the internet is free of charge and, thus, accessible to anyone. However, behind this appealing facade, Larry Page and Sergey Brin pioneered a whole new type of transaction. People do pay for online services, but no dollars, euros, or yuan are involved. Instead, they pay with their data. The abundance of online services offered by Google and other IT companies are the lures to illicit people’s data and dominate their attention – the attention sold to advertisers.
“Every single action you take is carefully monitored and recorded,” a former Twitter executive says in a Netflix series shedding light on suspicious activities of high-tech corporations.
The fat profits made on attention-selling contracts are used to grow the IT empires and build up the surveillance and manipulating capabilities. For example, by early 2018, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has over $700 billion in market capitalisation. As a result of this constant capability build-up, IT corporations become even superior to governments in their power to monitor and control people’s minds.
Israeli thinker Yuval Harari argues that we live in the era of digital fascism when the technological tycoons can force or even convince users to give up their values like privacy to create even more benefits for the corporations themselves.
The attention market
Imagine you went to a Nike store, found sneakers, paid at the checkout. You are the buyer, the sneakers are the product, and Nike is the seller. However, when you come home and open Google to catch up on the latest news, you turn from a buyer into the sneakers neatly sorted and arranged on shelves.
By engaging in virtually any kind of activity on the net, we give corporations access to our eyes and ears – they analyse our perception of the world, our likes and dislikes. For example, Google collects and processes our digital footprint (the information about all activities we engage in online) and hangs hundreds of virtual tags to each user (like “BMW lover”, “heavy eater”, or “unemployed”). Those tags help advertisers to distinguish their potential prey from the faceless internet crowd.
In return, Google gives us a virtual version of the world, tailored to us in such a way as to hold our attention the longest possible. To do this, they use a filter system – an algorithm that helps users separate information noise from the important stuff. The filters evaluate our virtual personality based on where we go, what we are interested in, what we pay for. This virtual personality image is then used to bombard users with targeted ads and create tailored feeds that will keep users’ attention as long as possible.
“Now a squirrel dying near your house is more interesting to you than people dying in Africa,” Mark Zuckerberg says about the phenomenon.
The Big Brother
Though George Orwell’s all-seeing Big Brother was initially conceived as the metaphor of the omnipresent totalitarian state, today, its mission seems to have been taken on by IT giants.
Ever since Brin and Page created Google, they began to think big. Their mission wasn’t just to create a search system or an advanced advertising business but to organise the world’s data to make it accessible and helpful to everyone. A vision that also encompassed the intelligence services.
As Google conquered the consumer internet, it simultaneously embraced a second track: Google, the government contractor. It turns out the platforms and services provided to ordinary users can also be employed by the US government, including the Pentagon and intelligence services. The critical element here is Google Earth.
In 2004 Google bought a small start-up company that provided virtual maps to the CIA, rebranding it Google Earth. Since then, Page and Brin’s giant has provided numerous services to the CIA and NSA, including customised search solutions, visual intelligence systems, server technologies and others. Since 2016, ex-US military officers have been present in the company’s management.
The possible behind-the-scene deals of this contracting business remain covered with mystery, as Google has been tight-lipped about its cooperation with the US government. It does not reveal its profits in a separate column in quarterly financial reports, nor does it comment to reporters. However, Guardian columnist Yasha Lavin maintains that “an analysis of the federal contracting database maintained by the US government, combined with information gleaned from Freedom of Information Act requests and published reports on the company’s military work, reveals that Google has been doing brisk business selling Google Search, Google Earth and Google Enterprise (now known as G Suite) products to just about every major military and intelligence agency, including the State Department.”
So, it looks like Big Brother is still here, though he pretends to have taken a market-based liberal form.