Screenshot, "Do Not Track"

New Docuseries Reveals How Big Data Tracks Your Every Move On The Internet

Is it possible to traverse the internet without being tracked?

Savvy users of the internet are aware, on some level, of the fact that our data is up for grabs all the time. We give away data intentionally — signing up with our name and email to use any number of sites, revealing our personalities and tastes with every tweet and Facebook post, storing our credit card information on Amazon — all the time. But we also give away data without ever really consenting: to third parties that track users across the internet, from one website to the next, compiling a remarkably in-depth profile of you based on your every online move. It feels like we have free email, free Facebook, free Twitter, free Instagram, free everything. But really, it’ll cost you.

Do Not Track is an interactive docuseries about privacy, big data, and how the internet disregards the former to serve the latter. If you provide some of your own information — where you get your news, for instance — you’ll get a personalized experience, seeing what information about you is already being seen by advertisers. Episodes are posted every two weeks; the third of five went live on Tuesday afternoon. Do Not Track essentially co-opts the tools of entities that track you to demonstrate how tracking actually works. In doing so, the series gets at some of the biggest questions looming over your relationship with the internet: What does it mean to be tracked? What information are you volunteering without even realizing it? If you have “nothing to hide,” why should you care about big data at all? To find out, I called up Brett Gaylor, showrunner and director of Do Not Track.

Are all the episodes complete, or are you doing this Serial-style and posting them as you go?

We’re still working on them. We made that insane decision to release every two weeks. We knew that we wanted to have it unfold over a couple of months, because behind the scenes there’s a whole engagement campaign where we’re asking people to register with us so we can have an ongoing conversation with them, and that’s going to change the way the other episodes will look and feel. So we created an API that collects user data, so those who sign in have a much different experience as the series progresses. We wanted to experiment with that.

You realize the kind of weird, meta-irony there, of asking people to register with you so you can collect their data in the middle of a docuseries about the dangers of giving away all our personal data online?

Definitely! That’s a big reason why we did it. It’s going to make you realize that you are doing it. Oftentimes when you’re using the internet, people are asking you to volunteer data but they’re doing it without clear language. It’ll say “register for this sweepstakes” or “do a survey” and a lot of those things are tracking mechanisms, especially if you read the fine print, which no one ever does. We wanted transparency. You can delete and modify the data we have about you at any time, and we have a fixed window of time that we’ll keep that data, after which it will be deleted.

People are responding positively because they’re actually seeing the mechanics of how it works. We wanted to give you an emotional experience, a visceral experience, one that’s personalized for you, so you can see that you’re implicated in big data collection and that it affects you. We knew it would be a meta issue. It’s that way by design.

How did you get interested in these issues in the first place?

I made a feature documentary in 2008 called A Remix Manifesto, which was about copyright law and how restrictive copyright law was threatening the freedom and openness on the web that I loved. I thought, at the time, that this was the defining issue of the internet.

Since that time, I joined the Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit that makes the Firefox browser, so I was able to be around a lot of people who were trying to influence the direction of the web. You really did see how Silicon Valley was beginning to work: it was built on a business model of collecting more and more data about people. A lot of this was because of the ad industry: once you accept advertising as a business model, there are a lot of secondary effects. You need to have large audiences, or an advertiser isn’t interested, so it favors incumbent, large players, those that are established. And that’s quite different from the dream of the internet as a level playing field. I didn’t like that.

You think about your conversion: you have this large audience that comes to your website, and what do we want them to do? There’s nothing like that in documentary filmmaking, generally. I was trying to think about, “What do I want people to become?” Zappos wants people to become someone that bought a shoe. With Do Not Track, we want someone to be an informed citizen. We want them to have more knowledge about this, and take more action in their life to have more privacy or to have a better understanding of how their digital environment is being shaped.

One of the things I think people have a hard time wrapping their heads around is why they should care so much about data collection, or why people who don’t like it can’t “just opt out.” But the internet really isn’t a luxury for someone living in modern society, someone who wants to be employed, maintain friendships, communicate with most people in a meaningful way.

I think that’s right on. Julia Angwin, who we interviewed in the second episode, tried to unplug for a year and wrote a book about her experience, and one thing she really hammers home is, to be connected as a 21st century citizen, especially being a mom, having a cell phone is not optional. You’ll hear that from people who shrug this off and think, “What’s the big deal? If you don’t want to be tracked, don’t go on the internet.” And I think that’s a very cynical response, because it’s not optional. So what can we do?

First of all, it’s early days. People are just starting to figure these things out. There are good add-ons for your browser that show you which third parties are tracking you, like Disconnect Me, and at a granular level, you can turn them off. I have a VPN, that’s the service that I pay a little bit for every month, and when I connect on the internet, it anonymizes my browsing behavior.

The phone is one that gives me the most pause, because the phone is really the thing that you carry around with you physically, so it is you. When you buy a phone, you get a SIM card. We don’t really think about what that means, but it stands for Subscriber Identity Model. That little chip now has your identity on it, and when you put that into a phone, each phone also has a UDID — a universal device identifier — and there’s only one of those on the planet. So you are welding your identity to this device. There have been cases where that UDID can be sold to advertisers. In the U.S., it’s a fairly mid-tier authority you need to subpoena those records from somebody. I’m starting to look at this blackphone by this company Silent Circle; they make texting and instant messaging apps that are off the record.

Some of this stuff sounds like espionage, but it’s just because we’re so early in this game. Like organic food, 20 years ago, if you’d asked for it, you would sound like the most crunchy, granola hippie on the planet. And now you can find that at Walgreens, because the market has started to exist for these products. I think the same thing is going to happen for our privacy.

It’s funny you say that it “sounds like espionage,” because a couple years ago, I interviewed this Princeton professor who tried to hide her pregnancy from big data — a project that was an explicit challenge to that notion of “just opt out.” Because, actually, you can’t. You have to engage in behaviors that make you look criminal: using Tor, paying cash, only giving out a P.O. Box address. Ironically, the stuff you have to do to protect your privacy is the kind of stuff that would get you on a watch list.

It feels like cloak and dagger, and we shouldn’t have to feel that way. It’s odd that we’ve come to the point where wanting to be private makes you this outlier. It didn’t used to be that way. It’s not that long ago that that was the norm. One of the things we’re trying to get people to think about critically is: who is benefiting from that shift in social norms? Like when Mark Zuckerberg says privacy is dead.


CREDIT: Screenshot, “Do Not Track”

Of course Mark Zuckerberg wants privacy to die.

Exactly. I interviewed this woman, Emily Bell, she’s the head of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. And she said, “We had this huge party, and now there’s a bit of a hangover. What did we do last night?” That’s sort of where we’re at with privacy.

One of the points you raise in the first episode is that we should be thinking about big data not just in how it affects us, individually, but how it affects everyone else. That “your data is used to assert power over other people.” I’d never thought about that before. What exactly does that mean? How can data about one person be leveraged to hurt another person?

The person who brought that up is Danah Boyd, who runs Data & Society Project in New York City. It’s this notion that, especially with this concept of big data, you’re trying to find correlations in massive data sets. Here’s a silly example but it’s one you can extrapolate: some journalists at the Wall Street Journal found that Staples was offering lower prices for some of their goods depending on your geography. So, “Oh, you’re closer to this competitor’s store, so we’ll offer lower prices online because we have to compete with your proximity to the store.” At worst, it seems a bit annoying. But what if you live really far away from a Staples store because that’s all you can afford, and you have to ride the bus to work every day? All of a sudden, this decision that seems like a free enterprise decision is actually discriminating against people along class lines.

In Boston, they had a really interesting project, “Street Bump,” that took the accelerometer in your phone — the thing that figures out if the phone is moving or not; it’s what Angry Birds uses when you tilt the phone back and forth — to see if, as you were driving, there was a bump in the road. They used it to find potholes and they would alert the city planners. That was a great idea. But then you think about it: are only people with expensive smart phones in their pockets are going to get their potholes filled? Luckily, the people designing this thought about that and made sure city workers had these devices as well. But these are some examples of, when we’re designing these algorithms and systems, they’re basically things that compare: they compare one thing with another.

Bill Bratton, the NYPD Police Commissioner, said this is going to be the year of technology in policing. And you cannot fault people that are living in communities of color for being more suspicious of this. They are experiencing quotidian surveillance. So you have to wonder, what does that look like, when you apply a technological layer to that? When a system of discrimination begins to have a big data tool in it? It’s something that, at the very least, should give us pause when we’re designing these systems. We should think about: what are the mechanisms we have in place in these algorithmic systems to make sure that they are fair and equal?

That’s something that is true of so much of our technology, though. When we talk about, say, a lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, it isn’t even just about the day-to-day lives of people in those workplaces: it’s about how technology that drives everyone’s everyday lives is being created almost entirely by upper-middle-class white men. And what does that mean about the people who will benefit from that technology? Who is going to be hurt by it, or at best, neglected? What problems will just go unsolved or be exacerbated?

Yeah, that’s fair! It reminds me of how Facebook sends these “year in review” things to people, and if there was ever a feature designed by people of privilege, that’s it. Not everyone wants a photo reminder of the year they had. If you lost your job or got divorced, you probably don’t. If your experience of the world is, “I have an amazing job, great parties, great food!” you’d want to be shown that. So a lot of power is being placed with these engineers.


CREDIT: Screenshot, “Do Not Track”

Another area where I’m really wanting to take a look at this is around journalism. Think about Facebook. We tend to like people that are like us, and that’s fine. But layering that onto the internet now, Facebook will figure out an algorithm that will present you with articles you’ll like, so you spend more time, to be sold more ads. So your view of the world is going to reflect people like you, people with your values, articles that won’t offend your sensibility. That has the potential to really broaden these existing divides, especially in North American politics which are divisive enough. If you’re a blue state diehard, you’ll only see news that Hillary is perfect. And that’s not what the press is supposed to do.

In the second episode, you discuss the DoubleClick lawsuit from 2001, in which a judge ruled that data collection wasn’t akin to wiretapping but instead is closer to “a friend listening in” on a conversation. It was, at the time, just a response to DoubleClick’s use of cookies, and internet users alleged that this placement was in violation of federal law. But DoubleClick won, and so they could keep tracking users’ activities and creating profiles of users in order to target them with advertisements. It seems like it was this huge watershed moment in the creation of the internet as we know it, particularly relating to data collection.

I couldn’t believe that: like, wow, one decision like that made it so there was less uncertainty in the market around this practice and boom, the money flooded in and things changed really quickly. I think people will often say “regulation is not the way to control the internet, laws don’t have an effect.” Well, this certainly did. This jurisprudence had a huge effect on the internet. And there are different laws in, say, Germany, and people have a different experience of the internet as a consequence of that. Acxiom, this data broker in the US, have profiles on hundreds of millions of Americans. They’re taking data records — hunting records, combining them with drivers licenses, and so on — to create this really robust, but hidden, portfolio of people. Well, that’s against the law in Germany. You just can’t do that! People who say, “let the market decide,” we’re starting to see what that looks like. We should be holding our decision makers accountable. These are not fringe issues. The days of it being okay that our politicians don’t know anything about the internet, that’s not cool anymore.

So… now what? We’ve already discussed that quitting the internet, as a person in 2015 who would like to be employed and stay connected to friends and family, is not really an option. Are we doomed? What happens next?

Here’s what I’m concerned about: there will become a market for privacy. And people will begin to respond to the Snowden revelations. The Patriot Act is probably going to be reinstated. I think there’s going to be a market for privacy, and I think that’s a positive thing: people are starting to realize these issues for the first time. What worries me is privacy will become a luxury good. That’s what I want to focus on next. I don’t know how to solve that problem. That’s why we’re trying to make a project that meets people where they’re at with this issue and is also a fun thing to watch. We have .gifs and music!

At the end of the second episode, you ask what viewers would be willing to pay for a version of Google or Facebook that doesn’t collect data. I get the sense that a lot of people would be willing to pay for that protection, as we become more clued into how far-reaching and dangerous data collection has become. I’d pay more for that than I pay for cable, probably.

I think that services will start to emerge. It’s a huge business opportunity. There’s a lot of people like you. Lawrence Lessig, the guy who started the Creative Commons project, he talks about the four forces that shape society: the law, code, social norms, and the market. Each of those things are going to interplay to shape our future. Privacy is a really good example of that. If the social norms shift so that you don’t have to use Facebook to announce a party, that’s going to make it so there’s a market for privacy-respecting services. That social norm will put pressure on lawmakers, because if they don’t respond to our demands for privacy, we’ll vote them out. Because there’s now a market, an engineer can sit down and write an algorithm that has fairness built in, and that code is going to inform our social norms. I think all those forces are going to play out so people who do care about this issue will be served. But again, we really have to work at making sure it isn’t only for the privileged.

I just read that Facebook even stores text that you type and delete — text you literally never post. I’m amazed that something like that is even legal, but maybe I’m naive about this. Convoluted privacy settings, overlong and incomprehensible terms and conditions: are people aware enough, or angry enough, about these problems to make a behemoth like Facebook change their ways?

I think that that’s not going to change until social norms change. People will vote with their feet and leave services that operate in that way. Facebook and those companies say “If people don’t like it, they’ll leave.” But they have to remember that it’s become less optional. They’ve been so successful. I haven’t been on Facebook in years and I miss invites all the time, and I don’t know what my friends from university are up to, and I miss them. And it would be really hard for me to quit Twitter.

Knowing everything you do about data collection and privacy, are you optimistic?

I find myself optimistic in that, there’s enough people that care about this and wake up every day saying, “Can I put my thumb on the scale of the internet and change it?” And ultimately, I think that’s the cool thing about the web and the internet: you can change it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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