Through the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the federal government’s electronic spying, through the NSA, FBI, CIA and other agencies has become astonishingly intrusive. Most of the legwork for this digital search and seizure isn’t actually done by the government itself. It’s corporate surveillance of Americans’ most private moments that makes the federal Big Brother as powerful as it is. The more extensive corporate data mining operations are, the more material gets sucked into the databases of the National Security Agency.
Big Data engineers like to put a friendly face on their surveillance programs, saying that people have to opt in. The Red Pepper advertising agency, for example, promotes its Facedeals program as something that consumers can choose to participate in, or not.
Facedeals is a program through which Facebook users can volunteer to have their Facebook photographs processed to inform facial recognition algorithms employed by surveillance cameras placed throughout the country. Red Pepper explains, “Facial recognition cameras are installed at local businesses. These cameras recognize your face when you pass by, then check you in at the location… The check-in app must be authorized via your Facebook account. With your help, the app verifies your most recent photo tags, using those to map the physical appearance of your face. Our custom-developed cameras then simply use this existing data to identify you in the real world. Personalized deals can now be delivered to your smartphone from all participating locations—all you have to do is show your face.”
It sounds pretty extreme to volunteer to be tracked by a network of cameras just in order to get a small discount. However, even more extreme are programs like Facedeals that operate without an opt-in requirement. There are other corporate surveillance programs in place that track people as they shop, using facial recognition or signals from mobile communications devices, without people’s permission.
Formally, you have the option to be excluded from participation in these electronic spying programs, but functionally, you have to know that they exist before you can possibly opt out. These programs operate invisibly, so as to avoid deterring people from shopping, or from altering their behavior.
Think about it: Do you know the names of any of the companies that are spying on you while you shop? What are their web sites? Who do you contact at these companies to tell them to stop stalking you?
We’re all being watched by commercial espionage companies who don’t even have the courtesy to introduce themselves to us, much less to let us know what they’re up to. Until legislators step forward to curb this abusive behavior, we don’t have any realistic hope of keep track of the trackers.
There is a web site that can help us fend off some of the activities of a few Big Data snoopers, however. A handful of companies that spy on shoppers without permission have responded to political pressure by agreeing to give people the opportunity to opt out of their surveillance programs at one single site: Smart Store Privacy.
You can go to Smart Store Privacy, and enter the identifying information from your mobile communications device, formally requesting that this device not be included in surveillance activities. There are limitations to the effectiveness of this site, however.
First of all, only 11 surveillance companies have agreed to abide by the restrictions listed on the Smart Store Privacy web site. There are other companies conducting in-store spying who will go on secretly tracking your movements, even after you sign up on the Smart Store Privacy web site.
Also, the Smart Store Privacy web site only restricts a small portion of in-store electronic surveillance against shoppers. The site still allows stores to track the activities of shoppers by cell phone signal and other methods. It only limits spying through shoppers’ Bluetooth and Wi-Fi MAC address communications. Even the companies that have signed the agreement will still be able to spy on shoppers who opt out at the Smart Store Privacy web site.
Finally, there’s the fact that people have to track down the Smart Store Privacy web site in the first place. It’s not been widely publicized, as the participating companies want as many shoppers to stay as open targets.
The Smart Store Privacy is a start, but only a start. It’s a little token of respect for privacy, providing a small territory of safety within a wide open field under the continual scrutiny of data hunters.
The extremely limited scope of the Smart Store Privacy agreement serves as a reminder that corporate surveillance is much less about providing useful services to consumers than it is about providing power to the corporations that can afford it.
You want to know how to opt out of corporate wireless surveillance programs? For the most part, you don’t really have the power to opt out… except through the democratic process. If you want to get your privacy back from the corporate spies who feed data to the NSA, contact your U.S. representative and U.S. senators, and tell them you want strong legislation to prohibit corporate spying programs that don’t require explicit and prominent opt-in permission for their surveillance activities.