When we are online we are constantly being watched and tracked. A huge industry has evolved to build profiles about us so that they can predict and influence our behavior - to make us buy products or vote for a specific politician. Our personal behavioural data is the new oil. We are living in an age of surveillance capitalism, as scholar Shoshana Zuboff explains in her famous and very disturbing book from 2018 (that I am currently listening).
The good news is that more and more people have become aware of this threat to privacy and democracy and try to move away from companies and services that operate within this surveillance economy (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Zoom etc) and never browse the web without an ad- and tracking blocker.
It is also good news that anthropology has become engaged in this struggle. Anthropologist Veronica Barassi for example has published a book a few weeks ago about how even small children and babies are tracked, how their personal information is collected, archived, sold, and aggregated into unique profiles that can follow them across a lifetime. It is called Child Data Citizen. How Tech Companies Are Profiling Us from before Birth.
Her goal was not only to understand but "to empower parents to seek legal change", she writes in the introduction:
I wrote this book for my daughters, my family, and all the parents and families I met in this life-changing and personal research journey. I owe them everything. Their stories, their thoughts, and their everyday experiences have shaped my understanding of the injustice of surveillance capitalism. They made this book possible; they inspired me, questioned me, surprised me, and reminded me of why we need publicly engaged ethnographic research.
Governments must step up and recognize that our data rights are tightly interconnected with our civil rights; as parents we need to start working together as collectives, organizations, and institutions to demand a political change.
The anthropologist is mother of two young girls. The idea for this book (and three year research project) came to her, when she realized that there are "vast—almost unimaginable—amounts of data traces that are being produced and collected about children":
Not only my fellow peers (and myself included) were recording important medical data on mobile apps, but we were extensively sharing photos of our children online through public and private social media platforms. (...)
Hence I started wondering: How were children’s data traces produced? How were parents negotiating with online privacy, data mining, and digital profiling? What type of data were companies collecting? Were companies profiling children from before birth?
After staring my project, I became pregnant with my second daughter (A) and Google knew I was pregnant before my family did!
Positive as well: The anthropologist made a very informative website that also include some of her research findings and useful background information and a blog. (I could not find any practical tips and information about tools and alternatives, though, I hope she will add them in future posts. Personally I learned a lot by visiting Reddit's subreddits Privacytoolsio and selfhosted).
She received some media attention, see among others the first review of the book An anthropologist investigates how data surveillance intersects with the 21st-century family (Kate Eichhorn, ScienceMag 16.12.2020), Call for smart home devices to bake in privacy safeguards for kids (Techcrunch 19.9.2018) and Children ‘need protection’ from AI home devices that collect and share their data (Telegraph 19.9.2018) about her earlier report Home Life Data and Children’s Privacy.
Ethnographic Study: Social Websites Important For Childhood Development (antropologi,info 24.11.2008 - from old times before the age of surveillance capitalism)