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Justin Honra

Prof. Bean
WRD 103/321
10 June 2014

Privacy: An Outdated Concept

The things you used to own, now they own you.
- Chuck Palahniuk, Author of Fightclub

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I was emailing my therapist about switching to a different medication and Google
decided that it would be okay to read my messages. It started annoying me with medication ads
and ads for psychologists and psychiatrists. I dont know if it bothers everyone, but I kid you not,
one ad said something along the lines of crazy people help. I do NOT like to be called crazy. It
also suggested several inpatient locations for specific problems that I have. I honestly believe
that this is a HUGE invasion of privacy. Im not the crazy one. Google is crazy, not to mention
- Not So Anonymous Gmail User
In todays digital age, our society has become so heavily saturated with advertisements
that any moment of respite has become almost impossible. Personalized advertising, as
illustrated in Not So Anonymous Gmail Users experience, is the common method advertisers
use in which a persons digital information is extracted to produce and present ads relevant to
that person. The ubiquity of personalized advertising is promoting a complacent American
culture that normalizes the act of digital espionage by corporations and the United States
government. Privacy is an unalienable right protected under the U.S. Constitution. However, has
privacy become an outdated concept all in the name of capital?
According to Mark Tungate, author of Adland A Global History of Advertising, Its safe
to say that advertising has been around for as long as there have been goods to sell and a medium
to talk them up (7). At its infancy, advertising was intimate, existing only in direct contact and
word-of-mouth. In 1447, German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press,
allowing one to quickly reproduce multiple texts (Tungate, 2007). It was not until the printing
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press was used to create newspapers, in combination with the Industrial Revolution that the
advertising industry began to develop its level of ubiquity experienced today.
The ability manufacturers had to mass produce goods and reach far flung audiences
through newspapers created a communication system between companies and potential
consumers. This early form of communication through newspapers could be understood through
the transmission model. According to the transmission model of communication, an encoder (a
company or advertiser) creates a message (an advertisement) and sends it through a medium (a
newspaper) to be received by a receiver (a potential customer). The flow of information in this
model is linear coming from companies, point A, and ending at the consumers, point B (Baran,
In todays digital age, the rise of societal dependency on the internet and electronic
devices such as smart phones, iPods, and tablets has disrupted the linear flow of effective
communication from companies to consumers. More and more of peoples waking hours are
spent looking at various screens whether they are a television screen, a computer screen, or a
screen of a mobile device (Sutanto, 2013). Consumers are no longer effectively reachable
through one channel as they are becoming more fragmented in platform use and interests.
To combat this, advertisers have turned to personalized advertising or retargeting, a
method in which advertisers extract a persons previous internet browsing history via a tracking
device called cookies and then produce ads shown on Google, Facebook, etc. specific to the
websites one has visited before. Advertising has become a two way street for information. The
linear communication of advertisements has become a circular flow in which ad agencies have
the ability to collect tremendous amounts of personal information from consumers and interpret
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them in a way to better sell their products. The circular flow of information is ongoing and
reciprocal because ad companies and consumers are always in the act of decoding and encoding
messages when creating and receiving personalized advertisements (Baran, 2011). Experiencing
a personalized advertisement is a way for consumers to unconsciously partake in this everyday
dialogue of commodity and their personal information.
This has caused a great deal of concern regarding the privacy of people and the ethics of
ad companies. On June 9, 2013, the online news website The Guardian released a video filmed
by Laura Poitras entitled PRISM Whistleblower. It was the first interview conducted with
Edward Snowden, a former consultant of the United States National Security Agency who, in the
video, admits to intentionally leaking NSA documents to several handpicked journalists.
Journalists such as Glenn Greenwald would then reveal to the public that the agency had been
spying on the electronic communications of the public as well as international political figures.
Arguably the most popular of these documents was the document outlining the PRISM program.
During a TED Talk in March 2014, Snowden describes PRISM as a program through which the
government could compel corporate America, it could deputize corporate America, to do its dirty
work for the NSA (TED, 2014). It enables the NSA direct access to information such as phone
records, location, and web history collected by companies such as Google, Facebook, and AT&T
to name a few. If anyone were to be suspected by the government or anyone with access to this
information, they can trace ones life back to every sensitive and private decision or act one has
made in his or her life and to use against him or her.
Many argue that mass collection of data does no harm and should only be of a concern of
terrorists. Mass collection of data is not only used as a tool for Big Brother, they would argue,
but could actually be beneficial to everyday citizens if used for the right purposes. In the article
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Big Lights, Big Data featured in Chicagos arts and culture weekly newspaper, Newcity,
journalist Philip Barash interviewed John Tolva. Tolva is the head of PositivEnergy Practice
LLC, an energy services and consulting company based in Chicago. Tolva discussed the growing
importance of big data to urban design. Big data is a mass of information collected electronically
such as Twitter, the crime incidents of a city, locations of food trucks, CTA ridership, etc. Tolva
and PositivEnergy Practice LLC analyze the collective data of Chicagoans for trends and
patterns that give urban planners the ability to look at the unintended consequences, the cause
and effect, of interventions in the built environment going back many years (Barash, 2014).
For instance, one can see the effects of adding bike lanes to Chicago streets by looking
into the locations of Divvy ridership and its relation to overall public health. Collecting mass
information of citizens could be used in learning the relationships between the physical
structures built and how the area around that built structure is used (Barash, 2014). Mass
information collected by corporations from the community can be used to inform design
decisions that give back to the community through ways that improve issues such as healthcare
access, educational practices, food deserts, etc.
However, the groups with the best access to these bodies of personal information are the
NSA and ad agencies, not urban designers, architects, or educators. What they choose to do with
the information has a bigger impact on American culture simply because they have the resources.
Glenn Greenwald states that the NSAs purpose of the spying system is not to detect terrorist
plots or national security plots, but is overwhelmingly economic in nature, during an interview
on Democracy Now, a daily independent news program that has been broadcasted on NPR,
college radio, and PBS. Greenwald was the first journalist to have access to the leaked files from
Snowden. In the interview, Greenwald discusses his findings on the NSAs driving mission,
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collect it all. The pervasive actions and monetary motives of the NSA are put very bluntly in
their own documents stating that their "new collection posture is collect it all, sniff it all, process
it all, partner it all, exploit it all (Greenwald).
In August 2013, Chicago launched its new public transportation payment system, Ventra,
in a $454 million contract partnering with Cubic Transportation Systems. The Ventra payment
system operates differently from Chicagos old system by connecting the payment system to the
internet. A Ventra user would create an online account where he or she can add bus fare via
credit and/or debit card, monitor past bus transactions, and track which trains and buses one used
at specific times. According to Cubic Transportation Systems website (, it operates in
five continents, tracks over 11.5 billion in ridership per year, and makes over $18 billion USD in
revenue. Its parent company is Cubic Corporation. Cubic Corporation works in transportation
data collection, and it also works in developing and supplying communication and signal
intelligence equipment to militaries and private clients. Every time a Chicagoan hops on a train
or bus and taps his or her Ventra to get to work, school, hangout with a friend, or visit a
grandparent, he or she unknowingly finances global wars and becomes a subject of study in the
development of weapon technologies.
It is not surprising to know that the purpose of collecting masses of personal information
is rooted in making a buck. The methods and purposes that companies use to collect digital
information is not a secret; they are quite transparent as long as one takes the extra step of
reading the privacy terms before installing a digital application. For example, Snapchat is a
mobile application that allows digital conversations between friends through photos, videos, and
added captions. According to Google Play, the app store for Android mobile devices, Snapchat
has over 50,000,000 downloads. Its influence to American culture is undeniable.
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As with most, if not all mobile applications, a user has to agree to the terms of the
application before download. As Snapchats privacy policy states, We may allow others to
provide analytics services on our behalf. These entities may use cookies, web beacons, and other
technologies to collect information about your use of the Services and other websites, including
your IP address, web browser, pages viewed, time spent on pages, links clicked, and
conversation information (Spiegel). Snapchat also requires access to contacts/calendar, location,
SMS messages, photo/media/files, camera/microphone, etc. Snapchat, like many communication
companies, has a data and analytics company handle their users collected information. Snapchat
works with the analytics company Flurry. Flurrys privacy policy discusses the informations use
in Flurry Real-Time Bidding Marketplace & Exchange Partners. It is an automated real-time
auction service where advertisers and media buyers bid for users personal information.
Media buyers bid for users personal information that can be grouped and categorized by
characteristics such as age, gender, location, interests, or whatever form of fragmented identities
Flurry collects. The internet and the advertising industry are so vast and increasing in size that it
is hard to control who is advertising. Who will oversee how our identities are used? Who will
decide what types of information can be interpreted by whom?
People are auctioned off every day. Our collective digital lives are presently being sold
for millions to corporations and the NSA. It is as though everyday people have become digital
slaves sold in the name of digital imperialism of big business. The Fourth Amendment to the Bill
of Rights guarantees The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and
effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall
issue, but upon probably cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the
place to be searched, and the persons or thing to be seized. Privacy is a constitutional right, and
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a warrant is needed to search and seize someones material possessions. It is the same for digital
possessions. However, we nonchalantly give our rights to privacy every time we agree to digital
applications terms without reading. The more we do this, the more complacent we become to the
surveillance state that is the United States perpetuating the everyday exploitations we
unconsciously experience and perceive to be normal.
Privacy has become an outdated concept in this world of increasing technology. Seeing
how corporations and the government are profiting from our personal information, who else are
left to protect our rights to privacy but everyday people? The First Amendment states that,
Congress shall make no lawabridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of
the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. It
is our right to protest what we do not like. It may be too late to keep corporations and the
government from invading our privacy in this digital world, but we can still have a say in how
our information is used whether that is in creating ads that call Gmail users crazy and for the
development of weaponry or in ways benefiting the community such as urban design. The
history of our country is young; the history of the internet is young. Get involved in internet
policy; it is our right and responsibility to shape it into the image we want.