Thought Web Tracking Was Scary? Tech Is Bringing Total Surveillance to Our Doors

We all know that China is the leading country when it comes to AI-powered surveillance. Its implementation of a citizen ranking system based on activities, surveillance, and offline (and online) tracking is the most extensive in the world right now.

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CCTV. Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Web tracking is no longer an odd thing; everyone, from tech giants to small businesses, is doing it one way or another. Web tracking has become more prominent now that there is a growing demand for better user insights.

Insights from users, generated from tracking data, are handy for various purposes. Advertisers, for example, can target users in a more meticulous way when there is tracking data to be processed. The same is true for businesses running remarketing campaigns.

While web tracking is quite common, the way tracking is done is scary for many users. Through tools like pixels and web scripts, websites can collect detailed data about your online activity. Here’s the bad news: tech companies are pushing tracking to new heights.

Understanding Web Tracking

Before we get to how surveillance is becoming more common, we need to take a closer look at web tracking itself. Web tracking today is a lot more advanced than it used to be. There are more ways to track you across multiple websites than ever before.

Your IP address is used as an identifier that gives a lot of information about you to websites you visit. Servers can collect data about your device, your operating system, and your approximate location using nothing but a public IP address.

Tools like pixel tracking take web tracking further. It is possible to track your online activities as long as you browse through websites that use the same tracking tool. This means businesses and advertising networks can amass more data about you.

They can even gather data about specific activities such as your online spending habits, the content you normally consume, and additional personal details. Features such as geo-tracking and big data analysis make web tracking much more comprehensive.

The result is an accurate predictive model based on your online habits. When you see an ad for a hotel in Hawaii after talking about going on a vacation with friends, you are not looking at ads displayed at random; the AI behind web tracking is advanced enough to predict your next moves.

Data Security as a Risk

Web tracking is not without its risks, with data leaks being the biggest risk of them all. As brands and advertising networks collect more data about you, the risk of losing your data to unauthorized parties or attackers becomes significantly higher.

And then there are risks associated with the collection of personal details. It is not uncommon for tech companies to fall victim to cyberattacks and data theft. Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn have all suffered from leaks.

Bigger cases like the Agoda and WeWork data breaches put users in more jeopardy. The data being stolen is not obscured or anonymous, which means attackers actually get their hands on granular information that can be used to further exploit your online activities.

To mitigate this risk, Google is taking a big leap in how it tracks users and shares collected insights. Advertisers no longer have access to granular data and cannot use their own tracking tools to collect user information. Instead, Google is creating a Privacy Sandbox.

The Privacy Sandbox handles all data collection and processing, and then presents the data in an obscured way through a centralized API. This may not be the perfect solution for the security challenges we face today, but it is a step in the right direction.

More importantly, Google’s Privacy Sandbox is an initiative that will soon be followed by other tech giants. The move towards better data privacy and user-friendlier web tracking needs to be appreciated and supported if we want to preserve a safe and private internet landscape.

New Tracking Capabilities and New Risks

There is more bad news: tech companies’ attempts to collect user data are not slowing down in any way. Yes, there are steps being taken to preserve user privacy, and regulations are being put in place to make sure that user privacy is a priority at all times. However, tech giants are finding new ways to track users beyond the boundaries of the World Wide Web.

Surveillance is now a source of privacy concerns. In the old days, CCTV cameras were used in closed-loop systems and could only be monitored manually. That is certainly not the case today. AI-powered computer vision enables real-time tracking of faces and people in an automated fashion.

Using artificial intelligence, computers can recognize faces and compare them against a database of identities. When you enter a retail space, for instance, the CCTV system inside the space can track your movement, gather data about your actions, and generate insights based on your visit. Even worse, multiple systems can stream CCTV video to the same AI core.

This means tech companies and advertisers can track your movement across a wide field of monitored space. If they can gather a lot of personal details based on your web activities, they can certainly generate more insights based on what you do offline.

Another important thing to note is the fact that surveillance devices are now in our homes. Home security cameras, the smart hubs we use today, and other IoT devices are actively streaming data to AI cores in the cloud for the purpose of generating more holistic insights about every one of us.

China Leading the Way, But…

We all know that China is the leading country when it comes to AI-powered surveillance. Its implementation of a citizen ranking system based on activities, surveillance, and offline (and online) tracking is the most extensive in the world right now.

The core of that surveillance system is a capable artificial intelligence that processes data at an incredible speed. Face recognition, object detection, people dwelling, and other AI-based analytics actively process CCTV feeds from thousands of security cameras and updates the social scores of Chinese citizens.

China may have the most extensive surveillance system monitoring its citizens, but it is far from being the only country doing the same thing. The UK also has thousands of CCTV cameras that are now powered by an AI. Various states in the US are actively blocking the use of AI-powered surveillance through local regulations, but the push towards the wide scale monitoring of citizens is still there.

It is up to us to really fight for privacy. In the case of web tracking, we can easily use a VPN, secure browser or a proxy service to become anonymous online. Web tracking, even in its most advanced form, is a minor security risk that can be mitigated by taking a more active stance managing our online privacy. Offline surveillance, however, doesn’t give us that option. If there is a time to fight for our privacy, now is that time.

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