A barista gets burned at work, buys first-aid cream at Target, and later that day sees a Facebook ad for the same product. In another Target, someone shouts down the aisle to a companion to pick up some Red Bull; on the ride home, Instagram serves a sponsored post for the beverage. A home baker wishes aloud for a KitchenAid mixer, and moments after there’s an ad for one on his phone. Two friends are talking about recent trips to Japan, and soon after one gets hawked cheap flights there. A woman has a bottle of perfume confiscated at airport security, and upon arrival sees a Facebook ad for local perfume stores. These are just some of the many discomforting coincidences that make today’s consumers feel surveilled and violated. The causes are sometimes innocuous, and sometimes duplicitous. As more of them come to light, some will be cause for regulatory or legal remedy.
Many people still think their smartphones are listening to them in secret—recording their conversations in the background, then uploading them to Facebook or Google surreptitiously. Facebook has been accused of the practice more than others, probably because its services (including Instagram) are so popular and ads are so easy to spot. The company denies doing so everytime, and researchers have shown it to be technically infeasible, too. But the idea still persists.
It persists because it feels true, and also because it is true, by the spirit if not the letter. Facebook and Google might not literally be listening in on our conversations, but they are eavesdropping on our lives. These companies have so much data, on so many people, and they can slice and dice it in so many ways that they might as well be monitoring our conversations. Traveling out of town and searching for restaurants? It’s not just that Facebook or Google knows where you are and what you’re searching for, but also if you’re a foodie or a cheapskate, if you’ve “liked” Korean hot pot or Polish pierogi, and what your demographics say about your income, and therefore your budget.
Tech companies do collect data in unexpected, and sometimes duplicitous, ways. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica catastrophe offers one example. More recently, a report based on research at Vanderbilt University suggests that Google collects or infers vast quantities of information about its users, based on their web browsing, media use, location, purchases, and more—sometimes even absent user interaction. Location data was particularly voluminous, with Android smartphones conveying a user’s position in space more than 300 times in a 24-hour period—even if the user has turned off location history in the device’s Google settings. The study also shows that the “incognito” mode in Google’s Chrome browser, which promises to hide a user’s information from websites while browsing, still makes it possible for Google to connect those supposedly hidden visits to its own, internal profile of a user.
Revelations like these have spawned a class-action lawsuit against the company, and it’s tempting to imagine that oversight, regulation, or legal repercussions might eventually discourage or even change the way tech companies collect and manage data. This hope jibes with the ongoing “techlash” that has consumed the sector for the past year or more. But it also ignores the fact that Google and Facebook’s data hunger takes place within the context of a widespread, decades-old practice of data intelligence.