The Real Story of Google’s Intense Surveillance of Users

Last Updated on March 25, 2021 by Shaun Snapp

Executive Summary

  • Google is a surveillance machine.
  • Amnesty International has published an excellent report on Google and Facebook’s surveillance.

Introduction

Google is an information behemoth. One that surveils its users. How Google treats the data of users is hidden under a cloak of secrecy.

Our References for This Article

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How Google and Facebook Changed the Deal on Surveillance

Google and Facebook lured users into using their services and then changed the deal after they consolidated power. This is explained in the following quotations in an excellent report by Amnesty International. There are several quotations from this report we wanted to highlight as they are so good.

To make it worse this isn’t the internet people signed up for when these platforms started out. Google and Facebook chipped away at our privacy over time.

This isn’t the internet people signed up for. When Google and Facebook were first starting out two decades ago, both companies had radically different business models that did not depend on ubiquitous surveillance. The gradual erosion of privacy at the hands of Google and Facebook is a direct result of the companies establishing dominant market power and control over the global “public square”

Google’s Comprehensive Scope

Through acquisitions, Google has created a net over Internet users, all for a single purpose, to monetize them by showing them advertisements. Both Facebook’s and Google’s revenues overwhelmingly come from advertising. (Google’s other revenue stream is Google Cloud Services).

Amnesty International explains this comprehensive control over Internet users as follows.

A second company, Google, occupies an even larger share of the online world. Search engines are a crucial source of information; Google accounts for around ninety percent of global search engine use. Its browser, Chrome, is the world’s dominant web browser. Its video platform, YouTube, is the world’s second largest search engine as well as the world’s largest video platform. Google’s mobile operating system, Android, underpins the vast majority of the world’s smartphones.

We are now trapped. Either we must submit to this pervasive surveillance machinery (emphasis added) – where our data is easily weaponized to manipulate and influence us – or forego the benefits of the digital world. This can never be a legitimate choice. We must reclaim this essential public square, so we can participate without having our rights abused.

The Temptation of Governments to Access Facebook and Google’s Information Treasure Trove

Now that Facebook and Google have accumulated all of this data and built the surveillance apparatus, they target governments.

Advertisers were the original beneficiaries of these insights, but once created, the companies’ data vaults served as an irresistible temptation for governments as well. This is for a simple reason: Google and Facebook achieved a degree of data extraction from their billions of users that would have been intolerable had governments carried it out directly. Both companies have stood up to states’ efforts to obtain information on their users; nevertheless, the opportunity to access such data has created a powerful disincentive for governments to regulate corporate surveillance.

This extraction and analysis of people’s personal data on such an unprecedented scale is incompatible with every element of the right to privacy, including the freedom from intrusion into our private lives, the right to control information about ourselves, and the right to a space in which we can freely express our identities.

We have already seen that Google and Facebook’s vast architecture for advertising is a potent weapon in the wrong hands. Not only can it be misused for political ends, with potentially disastrous consequences for society, but it allows all kinds of new exploitative advertising tactics such as preying on vulnerable people struggling with illness, mental health or addiction. Because these ads are tailored to us as individuals, they are hidden from public scrutiny,” said Kumi Naidoo.

The vast vaults of data that Google and Facebook hold about people represent a centralized ‘honeypot’ – an opportunity for state authorities to access highly valuable personal data that would otherwise be very difficult to assemble.

The Financial Power of Google and Facebook

Google’s market capitalization is more than twice the GDP of Ireland (both companies’ European headquarters); Facebook’s is larger by a third. The companies’ business model has helped concentrate their power, including financial clout, political influence, and the ability to shape the digital experience of billions of people, leading to an unprecedented asymmetry of knowledge between the companies and internet users – as scholar Shoshana Zuboff states “They know everything about us; we know almost nothing about them.”

Google and Facebook as Advertising Duopolies

Google and Facebook’s total revenues come almost entirely from advertising, at 84% and 98% respectively. Their information is so attractive to advertisers that the two companies are often described as having a “duopoly” over the market in online advertising. But it isn’t “just ads”: the information in their data vaults – as well as the computational insights that Google and Facebook derive from that data – is of intense interest to a host of actors, from companies who set insurance rates to law enforcement agencies.

The Data Surveillance Masters

The data ecosystem is vast and complex and composed of an inter-connected network of many different actors across sectors. Among the ‘Big Five’ tech companies – typically identified as Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Alphabet’s Google – Amazon and Microsoft have to a degree also adopted a version of the business model outlined above. Amazon also dominates the world of e-commerce, and Amazon and Microsoft are the world’s leading providers of cloud infrastructure, hosting much of the world’s data on their servers. Beyond the well-known brands, there is an an extensive network of companies that generate revenue through exploiting data, including ‘data brokers’ that accumulate and trade data from a variety of sources, and the ‘ad-tech’ industry.

The Recursive Promotion for More and More Personal Data

To increase their revenue from advertisers, Google and Facebook compete to offer the best predictions about the most people. To achieve this, they need to expand their data vaults and refine their predictive algorithms. This incentivises the companies to seek more data on more people to expand their operations across the internet, into physical space, and, ultimately, across the globe.

In 2012, Google introduced a sweeping change to its privacy policy allowing the company to combine data across its services, prompting a backlash among privacy advocates and regulators.

Tracking the Human Bodies of Users

Google also recently acquired fitness tracking company Fitbit, giving it access to one of the world’s largest databases of activity, exercise and sleep data”.

Who is Involved in the Surveillance Super System

The surveillance based business model does not only serve the interests of these companies at the very top of the food chain. It has become the core of so many businesses: from the advertisers to the data brokers, to the start-ups and non-tech companies looking to grow or pivot their businesses to monetize personal data. The model that has been pioneered by Google and Facebook is now the blueprint for the internet, and it is making its way into our homes, workplaces and streets via the ‘Internet of Things’.

And yet, despite what everyday users around the world have been encouraged to believe, the internet does not need to depend on surveillance. The serious abuses or privacy, freedom of expression and other human rights are not inherent in the technology behind the internet, but to the business model that has become dominant. Facebook and Google chose their business model precisely because it was the quickest way for them to grow. Now it is clear their choice is having profound and far reaching consequences for human rights.

Conclusion

Amnesty International has brought up some excellent points in its report. These were some of the most important points from the report.