July 31, 2009

The Top Seven Ways Technology Owns You

It's no secret that technological evolution has occurred at a frenetic pace. As technologies advance, they typically become cheaper, and in turn, their use becomes more widespread. But when it comes to those technologies that find their use in surveillance, tracking, and behavior control, it can be downright chilling how pervasive their use is in our daily lives. Bust out your tin foil hats, 'cuz these are the top seven ways technology owns you. 

7.  Your Car is Watching


Source: Car Culture/Mix Subjects/Getty Images

The original concept of a car was basically a rolling box with an engine and input controls (i.e. steering wheel, gas, brake, clutch). The rest was up to you. These days, cars nearly do more driving than the occupants do. While features like Mercedes-Benz's automated cruise control are great for lazy drivers, some of these cutting edge features really have less to do with convenience and more to do with controlling the behavior of people driving.

What started with basic computer programs like traction control, which controls which wheels get power in order to maximize stability (and prevent you from doing burnouts), has mutated into gas pedals which tell you how fast you can accelerate and GPS-controlled throttle limiting, where an eye in the sky literally tells your car how fast you're allowed to go.

And if things do manage to go wrong, interested parties can retrieve the car's "black box" – a data recorder that's been quietly added to the majority of cars made in the last five years or so – which can relay information about vehicle speed, brake and throttle position, g-forces, and various other stats in the seconds before an airbag is deployed. This data can then be used as evidence in lawsuits or prosecutions.

And let's not forget that modern cars have become a great asset for wiretap-happy entities too. Features like GM's OnStar service can be activated remotely on any OnStar-equipped car at any time, allowing eavesdroppers to listen to conversations inside the car whenever they like. It's been done in the past, and while it's been deemed illegal, the technology (and the ability to use it this way) hasn't changed at all.

6. Google Knows More about You Than Your Mom Does


Source: Michael Nagle/Stringer/Getty Images

It's no big secret that Google is very interested in collecting data about the people that use their services. But when you start scoping the ads on the right hand side of your emails and see things related to the words within body of email, it really drives home the level at which Google is willing to dig into your privacy in order to harvest as much data about you as possible.

Combined with services like Google's newly unveiled "My Location" feature in Google Maps, which allows Google to pinpoint your location without the use of GPS, and the fact that Google essentially indexes the entire Internet and catalogs any mention of your name and the context in which it occurs, it becomes clear that Google holds some pretty extensive and valuable information about nearly everyone who uses the Internet on a regular basis.

Next year, Google is going up the ante when they get into the PC operating system realm with Chrome OS, which many speculate will be able to replace your current OS for free. At that point, when Google is maintaining nearly every function of your computer, they will have the ability to look at just about everything you do on your computer (for the purposes of data collection, of course).

When it comes to acts of outright evil by Google, it's a case of "so far, so good." But that data isn't going to vanish any time soon, and forever is a long time for valuable information to stay out of the wrong hands.

5. Social Networks Know Even More Than Google


Source: Dan Kitwood/Staff/Getty Images

If the amount of information Google has about you creeps you out, the kind of data social networking sites like Facebook have is Google's wet dream. Last year, when Facebook changed their terms of service and essentially gave themselves the ability to do anything they wanted with user's data and content whenever they felt like it, the community freaked out. Facebook eventually reverted back to the previous terms of service because of the backlash, perhaps just to give themselves some time to find a better way of phrasing things.

Where a company like Google focuses mainly on email and searches to gather information about users, Facebook has a vast array of different areas to pull information from. Users willingly post just about everything about themselves – and others. Any regular Facebook user knows the unpleasant experience of finding information and/or photos of themselves that have been posted by someone else when they would've rather it had been kept out of the public eye.

Even seemingly innocuous activities, like the myriad of quizzes that people post results from on a constant basis, are already being used for market research. Facebook knows how old you are, where you live, what you like to eat, who your friends and family are, what you look like, where you like to go, and what you like to do. While Google might collect random bits and pieces of your online existence from various footprints you've left behind, Facebook's 200 million users have organized everything for them, and update the details on a daily basis.

4. Digital Cameras: Everyone Gets Their Fifteen Minutes


Source: AAGAMIA/Iconica/Getty Images

Here is a perfect example of a technology which became insanely widespread once the tech became cheap enough. Now, nearly everyone owns a cell phone, and nearly all cell phones have cameras on them. That means that nearly everything that happens anywhere can be easily recorded, and with YouTube now as the de facto source for user generated videos, everyone knows where to go to see it. Would moments like this and this have been nearly as publicized if digital cameras weren't so commonplace we didn't have the ability to post the video in a place where anyone could view it at any time? 

While digital cameras have had a positive impact in regards to holding people accountable for their actions, it comes at the price of privacy and that lingering concern in the back of people's minds that what you're about to do may end up on YouTube for literally millions of people to see, and once it's out there, there's no getting it back. That might be comforting to some in terms of safety, but for others, the idea that you never really have public anonymity is a disconcerting thought.

3. Credit Cards Monitor What You Buy


Source: Gen Nishino/Photographer's Choice /Getty Images

Simply put, credit card companies are some of the shadiest companies in the world, and go to great lengths to modify their cardholders' behavior to make sure they get paid.

Did you know that your credit card company can look at what you use your credit card on and then turn around and use that information against you? Well, they can and do, and will make changes to your APR based on what you use your card on. So, if you swipe the plastic at the bar in Vegas or use it to bail your drunk friend out of jail, don't be surprised when your APR goes up despite your good credit, because your lifestyle is a credit risk. Something to think about next time you buy…anything.

2. Safety Cameras for Your Protection


Source: Cate Gillon/Staff/Getty Images

A recent trend in city planning has been the implementation of citywide CCTV – essentially covering entire metro areas with cameras in the interest of "public safety." The city that is perhaps the most notorious for this practice is London, where each citizen is filmed more than 300 times a day on average. This technology is also extended a step further in England with "speed cameras" which line the roads and automatically ticket drivers who exceed the speed limit.

You would think that a city where citizens are constantly under the watchful eye of the authorities would be a very safe place to be. However, even though London's authorities are aided by literally tens of thousands of cameras in the public areas throughout London, the technology has done almost nothing to help solve or deter crime.

Despite this evidence that CCTV blanketing isn't really effective, it would unwise to be lulled into an "it can't happen here" mentality. Not only are cities like New York and Chicago already on the bandwagon, but smaller communities are joining in too, and a lot of people are totally into it.

1. RFID Tags: The Way of the Future


Source: Steve Wisbauer/Photodisc/Getty Images

Radio frequency identification chips present a vast array of privacy concerns. In the simplest terms, RFID technology uses radio frequencies to broadcast a unique identifier to devices searching for those signals. The chips do not require batteries. At this point, RFID chips can be built to be smaller than a grain of sand and are cheap enough to be embedded into just about anything you use – cell phones, tennis shoes, sunglasses...whatever.

In products, the main intended purpose of RFID tags is to track inventory and make sure it gets to where it is supposed to be. However, RFID tags do not stop working once the product has been purchased, and therefore raise concerns about the ability to track someone who has purchased an item which contains an RFID tag. The chips are also currently used in passports, and the ability to hack these chips remotely via wireless antenna has been already been proven conclusively. Despite the ease of exploit, its use as a wireless payment system via mobile phones and credit cards is currently under development.

So essentially, whether or not someone takes great strides to remain "off the grid," RFID will ensure that even purchasing a pair of socks, in cash, will make the individual trackable. A brave new world indeed.


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