The news this morning was only a little surprising: the famous Cedars-Sinai medical conglomerate and hospital is being sued for selling patient information to Facebook a/k/a Meta, who in turn would sell it to others.
It was done, the suit alleges, through a single blank pixel on the hospital’s website that reports back to the reprehensible Mark Zuckerberg and his minions. While it is possible to detect that kind of thing, it’s not something most people, especially people distressed over their own or a family member’s illness, would think to check out, even if they knew how to do it, which most of them don’t. I mean, if you can’t trust the hospital (there are a lot of reasons not to trust today’s hospitals, but we’ll let that pass for now), who can you trust?
No one, is the correct answer. Absolutely no one, not online or, increasingly, elsewhere.
The Cedars-Sinai report came a week after it was alleged that the Good RX application, which advertises itself as a way to get huge discounts on pharmaceutical products, was accused of selling customers’ medical information to Google and Facebook. What do you want to bet that among those companies’ customers are insurance companies, who set your insurance rates? That’s not really something we should bet on, because it’s a certainty. (Good RX settled the case but denied wrongdoing.)
And online pharmacies are doing the same thing.
(There’s a weird irony that all of this is coming to light — it’s been going on for years — only because a politically favored class is afraid their orders of “morning after” abortion pills will be found out.)
That leading repository of evil, Google (now that people question whether Facebook even still exists), is actually trying to acquire, digitize, and sell the medical data of current and former military personnel.
Got a cool new “smart” watch? Best that you think of it as a spy watch instead, and what it’s spying on is you. It’s not just downloading data for your convenience, it’s uploading data about you and your activities for the convenience and profit of many companies, only some of which you’ve ever heard of.
You may remember the television ads a few years ago in which the husband, who as is typical of advertising in recent years, is an idiot. He phones home from the grocery store. He has only a vague idea why he is at the grocery store, apparently, because he phones home to ask his wife if they need anything. The wife, too lazy to get off the couch and go to the kitchen, provides no information. So the husband, in keeping with his role in what now seems to be general family fecklessness, telephones the refrigerator. No, really. He calls up the refrigerator on his “smart” cellular phone and looks around to see what food is running short.
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Yet a couple weeks ago it was reported that half of the people who have bought spyware appliances haven’t connected them to the internet. How will they get by if their oven, or dishwasher, or, of course, refrigerator isn’t on the internet? Why wouldn’t they want to be inundated with advertisements that the ketchup is getting a little low? Why wouldn’t they want others to have access to these data?
Those of us who possess the gift of sentience are aware that our “smart” phones are collecting information about us and phoning their real masters with it. Some of us are doing what we can to protect ourselves. But many are not aware that newer model cars are doing exactly the same thing. That oh-so-helpful service that “stays with you” if you have a wreck is in fact monitoring your every move, all the time.
You might be proud of your new BMW automobile. You saved and paid a lot of money to the dealership and might actually believe that you purchased it. But those expensive heated seats will work if and only if you pay $18 per month to the BMW company. Otherwise, the BMW company will turn them off, even though you bought them and paid for them. Which the BMW company can do, wirelessly, no visit to the dealer necessary. By 2026, new cars will require some mechanism to disable them if it’s determined that the driver shouldn’t be driving. When this was called a “kill switch,” administration apologists rushed to say it is no such thing. But it effectively is. And while we can agree that there are some people who shouldn’t be driving, we’d likely not be of one voice as to the person or persons allowed to make that determination. And that presumes the system would function perfectly — you know, like the FAA’s handling of aviation.
Oh, and cars equipped with all this stuff can be hacked.
I make a point of being a safe and courteous driver, as does anyone who cares for living in a civil society or for his own self preservation. And my car is old enough that it doesn’t phone home. Its seats are as warm as those of any BMW whose owner who isn’t forking over $18 per month. Ah, but I’m not exempt. Not long ago I received email from my insurance company. Its subject was “Special Member Benefits for your Continuous Loyalty.” The “special member benefit” was an invitation to use a cellular telephone application that would keep track of me and my driving, all the time. I was also offered the opportunity to invite the company to constantly survey my house and other property that I pay the company large amounts of money to insure. For my benefit, of course.
Do you have a “smart” television? I do. They’re marvels. They let me choose from among hundreds and hundreds of streaming offerings. But I’m also aware that the television itself, plus many of the channels I watch, are spying on me. They’d spy even more if I hadn’t disabled the microphones associated with the device. There’s a turn-off-spying switch that I trust as far as I could throw a 95-inch flat screen (no, I don’t have one of those).
And that’s to say nothing of the malware that comes on streaming devices, such as the ones sold by Amazon.
Most of what I’ve listed is legal, and there’s little likelihood it will be made illegal and no likelihood it will be made illegal in any meaningful way — fines for violating the laws that do exist are just a cost of doing business. There’s a lot of illegal stuff going on, too — we’re living in the electronic wild west. And more than one company profits from illegally collected data by maintaining plausible deniability, which is to say with a wink and a nod and not asking the source of the information.
Of course, our phones are a leading source of our private information, which is why we should all do what we can to button them up. But the bad guys, those operating legally and those who aren’t, are pretty clever. Maybe you haven’t granted any companies permission to listen in on your phone calls (are you sure you haven’t?) but have no problem giving them access to your phone’s accelerometer, the little gyroscopic thing that lets your “smart” phone do so much of its magic. Guess what? Companies now can use the vibrations of your phone’s speakers, as picked up by the accelerometer, to listen to your calls. So maybe you’ve granted listening permission after all. (If you use a “voice assistant,” you’ve given away everything. Turn it off. Get rid of it.)
What can be done about it? At the moment, not much. Nor can we count upon our elected officials to come to our aid — they’re part of the problem, not the solution. (Recidivist Georgia gubernatorial loser Stacy Abrams has even offered up her donor and voter databases to the highest bidder.)
All that I can think of — I’m sure the many, many people far cleverer than I am could do better — is something inspired by the great Chicago columnist Mike Royko more than 30 years ago. In a flash of brilliance — his paper later forced him to retract it, when other media companies came down hard on his idea — Royko suggested that voters lie to exit pollsters. No matter how they voted, he said, they should tell the pollsters the opposite. I could not agree more.
Is it possible to do something similar in our online life? Maybe.
As I imagine it, we would set our computers to work generating all sorts of fallacious data to feed to the spies. Make it impossible for them to distinguish what’s real from what isn’t. (Again, Apple has shown the way: the crash detection “feature” on its current devices call 911 and report a crash pretty much whenever, it seems, a skier who owns one of the things skis down a hill. This has overloaded emergency services near ski resorts.)
I’m serious. The only effective way of defeating the trackers and data trackers is to flood their collection of accurate data about us with orders of magnitude more inaccurate data about us. To become a constantly moving target. To raise the noise level so high that the signal is indistinguishable.
And I further predict that this will be the next big thing in internet privacy protection. Some of us are already doing this in a small way through such things as using our VPNs to change our perceived location every few hours, at random times. We’re using multiple browsers, some with lots of security features enabled, some with only a few, and switching among them, to reduce “fingerprinting.” (By the way, you can test your browser’s privacy here, at a site run by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.)
But even so, it’s a losing battle until enough people get angry enough about it. I despair that this will ever happen.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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