One experiment from Stanford University examined the phone metadata of about 500 volunteers over several months. The personal nature of what the researchers could deduce from the metadata surprised even them, and the report is worth quoting:
Participant A communicated with multiple local neurology groups, a specialty pharmacy, a rare condition management service, and a hotline for a pharmaceutical used solely to treat relapsing multiple sclerosis…
That’s a multiple sclerosis sufferer, a heart attack victim, a semiautomatic weapons owner, a home marijuana grower, and someone who had an abortion, all from a single stream of metadata.
Web search data is another source of intimate information that can be used for surveillance. (You can argue whether this is data or metadata. The NSA claims it’s metadata because your search terms are embedded in the URLs.) We don’t lie to our search engine. We’re more intimate with it than with our friends, lovers, or family members. We always tell it exactly what we’re thinking about, in as clear words as possible.
The gist of the excerpt is that while people might be worried about the NSA, corporations know a lot about us: from who we have talked to, where we have been, who have interacted with through metadata and more personal information through search data. And perhaps the trick to all of this is that (1) we generally give up this data voluntarily online (2) because we perceive some benefits and (3) we can’t imagine life without all of this stuff (even though many important sites and social media barely existed a decade or two ago).
The reason I pulled the particular quote out for the headline is that it has some interesting implications: have we traded close social relationships for the intimacy of the Internet? We may not have to deal with so much ignorance – just Google everything now – but we don’t need to interact with people in the same ways.
Also, this highlights the need for tech companies to put a positive spin on all of their products and actions. “Trust us – we have your best interests at heart.” Yet, like most corporations, their best interests deal with money rather than solely helping people live better lives.