It was a morning like any other as I settled into my office. Checking the news sites for the big stories of the day, that’s when it showed up on my screen. The story in The Guardian would cause quite a stir and more than a bit of consternation as people digested the ramifications of the information contained within.
“Want to freak yourself out?” so began the article by Dylan Curran entitled 'Are you ready? Here is all the data Facebook and Google have on you.'
In the article Mr Curran shows how much of our private information is stored by these internet giants without our realising it. Confirming that what we have long suspected about Facebook and Google is no conspiracy theory but a part of our everyday existence.
Google knows where we’ve been, storing our location every time we turn on our phones. There is even a timeline you can access which shows every place you’ve ever been from when you first used Google.
Google knows your entire search history even if it has been deleted as long as it hasn’t been deleted off all your devices.
Google knows all the apps you use including how often, where they are used, and who you interact with via the app. So, Google knows that I speak to my family via WhatsApp video and my usual bedtime. Creepy? I think so!
It retains every email even If deleted, knows every video I’ve ever watched on YouTube and knows which events I’ve attended. Google knows my music tastes, exercise habits and holidays taken.
All in all, the data it has on the average user can fill millions of word documents and if someone were to manage to gain access to someone else’s Google account they can easily download over 10 years of history in less than a minute; powerful and potentially dangerous information in the wrong hands.
What concerns most people though is the next item on our list:
Google uses this information and creates an advertisement profile of you based on your private information, including your daily activities, interests and income which leads to targeted ads.
To be honest, while this all sounds really scary, Google doesn’t actually sell any data to anyone. Instead they use that information to create a data profile which can be used on their platforms for targeted ads. So if you want to sell a product such as a Marc Chagall style inspired portrait of Bob Dylan wearing a Spurs shirt to someone who likes Dylan, Chagall or Spurs, then I may receive a targeted ad. However, other companies have been less than scrupulous about hiding identities, and unauthorised data mining is a large part of cybercrime.
This all raises many questions for us all. Is it wrong for these companies to have access to our data and use it to influence us? What right do they have to this information?
There is a Halachic presumption of the right to privacy in my own home. The Mishna even forbids building a window directly overlooking your neighbour’s yard or opposite their window so as not to encroach on their privacy. In the confession prayers of Yom Kippur, we confess to having ‘stolen’, and according to the Siyach Yitzchak commentary, we are referring to stealing people’s privacy by snooping on them in their homes.
In the case of Facebook and Google when we signed our user agreements, we signed over our rights and privileges to being in charge of our information. The US Congress pointed out that the service agreements were written in deliberately obtuse language so that people would just click accept without actually reading the contract.
While that is underhanded and would seem to be a case of the consumer agreeing under false pretences, it’s critical to remember that we did sign up for these programmes in order to gain access to the world of blazing-fast downloads and to receive a license to cruise down the information superhighway known as the internet. That’s a decision we made, usually quite happily, and if we choose to rescind that access due to now understanding how our data is being used, then we can at any time choose to stop using our mobile phones and enjoy a world without email, YouTube, internet, and WhatsApp.
David Lichtenstein writes in his bestselling book Headlines “It seems clear that respecting privacy is required by force of the general commandment of “Loving your fellow as yourself”which requires one to treat others the way he would want them to treat him. Quite obviously, no one wishes to have his privacy violated, even if the information does not become public, and, as such, the obligation of “Loving your fellow as yourself” would require us to respect other people’s privacy just as we would want them to respect ours.”