A controversial comparison, Google/Facebook and the Stasi

Not everybody may agree with the following – although they are mainly just observations and comparisons. The Stasi was chosen as a representative for any intelligence agency in an undemocratic regime, I could have chosen the KGB just as well, it is just that the Stasi became infamous during the time of the GDR (German Democratic Republic, DDR in German) and after the fall of the wall – their methods of surveillance and charting were revolutionary and would still work well today. At the same time, while I specifically refer to undemocratic regimes – who is to keep a democratic regime from collecting data, especially if no-one knows.

With this introduction, I also need to point out a major difference between the Stasi and companies like Google – companies today do NOT incarcerate suspected “dissidents” and do not employ interrogation methods of any kind. They are strictly limited to the data gathering an analysis part – a further comparison is that both follow a “higher power”.

So let me begin:

Intelligence agencies work for a government, they represent a government, and often also a political ideal – companies like Google also follow a higher power, this power is money. The final financial gain justifies the means and methods used – it might not be profitable now, but it will be, or alternatively it is modified to bring in profit.

No company, especially in a capitalist society, can afford to offer a service free of commercial interest – theses interests might not be directly impacting the user, they might be indirect. For example, advertisements offered next to search results, if people click them, this results in revenue for the search provider – many sites tend to use such a model, and while in general the idea of ad-supported sites isn’t a bad one, due to the nature of today’s advertisement climate, it does incorporate significant privacy issues.

So what did the Stasi do:

The Stasi tried to identify people worth of tracking – this is done either via the persons position in society or an organization, or alternatively due to some publication. If such a person was identified, this person would be reported upon by IMs (Informelle Mitarbeiter – informal members of staff) or alternatively subject to surveillance by regular staff – in the end, what matters the most is, that every movement and meeting would be monitored.

So what does Google do automatically:

Google will track your search results, and if possible try to also link these logs – chance is, that if you never cleared out your cookies, Google knows you pretty well, maybe even better than your best friends. Every search term is used to create a profile – obviously, this only works well if the “other party” is especially gullible, using Google toolbars, and other Google tools – the initial version of Chrome contained a unique identifier to make such tracking especially easy. (I believe this has been rectified, although the interested reader will need to research this by him/herself.)

Imagine having someone peer over your shoulder 24 hours every day, 7 days per week – you would not accept it, it would drive you mad – but anytime you use a Google service this happens.

Oh, did I mention – being logged into Google makes this easier for Google too, as it no longer needs to try and map your queries to a certain pattern.

I do not know if other people like to be tracked like that – I personally do not. And if people claim they have nothing to hide – have you really? Data can be manipulated, for or against people, and where data exists as other people point out correctly, powers crave for it (i.e. governments).

Especially when data exists, it is easy to request it – when data is not collected in the first place the same can be achieved, however it is a more exhausting and tiring process – at least in a “democracy”.

So what happens if you do not use Google search, Google mail – or other Google services, are you safe? No, you will not be tracked by search terms, but most likely Google analytics will track you, or even the advertisement vendors, one of the largest being owned by Google. Yes, the image will no longer be as complete as it could be, but again, you can be tracked across sites, it is possible to profile you.

-> So from a data collection point of view, Google and the Stasi operate pretty much in the same way and strive for pretty much the same aims: As comprehensive a profile of people as possible.

Next point – preemptive data collection:

As an intelligence agency you would sometimes preemptively collect data – because you think it might be useful, a hair here, a fingerprint there, or maybe a smell.
What does Google do? It does exactly the same – when collecting the information for streetview in Germany Google apparently “accidentally” recorded a few hundred GB of Wi-Fi snippets from networks – including full emails.

Now I don’t know if the company really believes people are that stupid – but one does notice when several hundred GB of harddrive space are suddenly filled up. Yes, maybe it was just an overzealous employee, maybe it wasn’t really planned – what is important, it happened. Google has collected data that it wasn’t allowed to collect (and the fact that the Wi-Fi networks were open doesn’t really count, are you allowed to enter a private house because the door is open?) – collecting preemptively like the Stasi.

-> Again, a striking similarity between those two organizations.

The last key point:

Analysis – there is no point in collecting data if you do not analyze it. Intelligence agencies would analyze people to try to profile them – if you know dissidents follow a pattern by visiting say a common school, you can use this information to reduce your net of suspects. Profiling is a powerful tool, and also legitimately employed by police services around the world today.

So let’s look at Google. What does Google do? Well, they collect data from people’s searches and then use that data to create profiles – in manner such, that your search terms can give an indication of your gender or age – maybe political orientation, hobbies. Now obviously, this cannot be done so easily for every person, but even if you have only a few thousand profiles – these can easily be combined to describe most people reasonably accurately.

Google will tell you this is done to improve their ad service – yes, it might be, but we should also consider the implications of doing this.

Google can give a good estimate as to “who” you are from the data they collected – imagine going to a cinema and the member of staff goes “would you like tickets for this film?” based on your dress code, your behavior – maybe your speech. This is what Google is doing. Yes, it is done by a computer, but still, the data is there, it can be used by people to. The same data could be used to classify people into groups, to gauge their political orientation. This information could be used to put pressure on people – also, if an algorithm is say accurate in 90% of all cases, who will be willing to accept someone might be a part of the 10% that it doesn’t classify correctly? – If I profile a group of people with such an algorithm – how can someone in that group prove its inaccuracy?

Imagine you’d profile people to deny them a service – or restrict their movement – the potential for abuse is phenomenal – on a government level, or an “industrial level”, insurance companies for example.

And it is even worse, as companies like Google will sell such information too – handing this information to other companies for profit. Imagine your employer decided to sell all the information he/she has on you – your file – when you’ve been ill, how often you’ve been ill – how much you are paid, maybe the odd impression about your reliability.

Would you want all that out in the open domain? I don’t – and I’d be sure to be especially rude to anybody who has been shadowing me online and profiling me.

Now in the introduction I mentioned Facebook too – Facebook does pretty much the same as Google – albeit it has an even greater ability to profile. People upload their personal information to the site, and then behave just as they would amongst their friend, out in the open world – ignoring their privacy completely. This means that Facebook gets and insight into the people’s private behavior – imagine someone constantly watching you at home, watching you amongst your friends.

This is even more powerful than the ability of Google to profile people through their search terms.

Additionally, with the like button, Facebook gets the ability to gauge user opinion and preferences – even when the “like vote” needs to be taken with a grain of salt in that it might just mean that a person agrees with something he/she “likes”.

The like button is insofar significant, as it will register any form of positive information. Let us assume I type “18-200mm EF reviews” into Google – I should get results that review an 18-200mm lens for Canon (EF mount) - I will most likely click on those reviews, possibly tabbing and keeping the search site open, or even opening new windows.
Unless the site I visit runs Google analytics, Google has now lost me – it does not know how much time I spend on a site, neither whether I approve or dislike the site (Note: With Analytics Google would know how long I remain on the site and what links on the site I clicked).
If, however, this site has a Facebook Like Button, this will tell Facebook that I at least approved of the content – otherwise I would not have clicked the button – this is an even more powerful tool than just tracking searches, as it can gauge the user’s opinion of the result.
Considering that people who are supporters of Facebook are likely to making frequent use of the button, should they encounter it, means that a very powerful profiling and tracking tool is available to Facebook.

The introduction of a Facebook comment system, as indicated in ZeitOnline, a German online newspaper, would only help increase Facebooks ability to collect user data, and increase their tracking ability.

So why should we worry?

Some people may have noticed that more and more sites are offering log ins via Facebook, or OpenID, or something else – this is insofar dangerous as it results in a detailed profile of user activities – the operator of the service is able to track what sites I log into, i.e. on which sites I spend my time. Adding this to the previous information, it should be easily visible how this results in a very detailed profile – information that is very valuable and can easily be sold for a high price.
It might seem like a useful feature if you can link services by using a single account, at the same time, this puts an enormous amount of information in the operators hands – information the operator can use to profile you for financial gains.

What’s more, let’s even assume that a person is naïve enough to want to live such a transparent life, with privacy eroded by commercial interests, let us not forget that companies have offices in countries – they have to obey the jurisdiction they are located in.
Let us be naïve enough to assume Google really offered it’s service out of goodwill – Google has offices in the US, in Ireland – each country can force the company to give up at least a copy of information it has collected. A government can force Google to give up information about say an account and searches related to that account.
In the old days a government would have had to collect this data yourself, now any government could in theory get a lot of the information it desires by pressuring Google – or Facebook too.
This is insofar worrying as with the current tendencies to head towards more radical attitudes in politics this might lead to discrimination – imagine you would be charged more tax because say five generations in your past a member of your family was engaged in actions against the state.
An observation one makes in life is, that nothing corrupts like money and power – data is one thing, power. Data can be manipulated and used to manipulate – if you do not believe this, you are naïve and I suggest you have a look at Charles Seife, Proofiness – the author explains nicely, how plain numbers have been used to manipulate – not even datasets.

The amount of data that companies like Google harvest are worrying – but does that mean any user tracking is bad? The answer is no.
If I track a user locally on my site, this can help me to improve my site. If I know that a user spends 5s on page A and 1min on page B where both are of similar length, and the result is consistent over several users, I know that users prefer page B to A and I might need to revise page A on my site.
Contrary to Google’s tracking, this does not allow for detailed analysis of a person’s interests, gender, political orientation, etc. It just helps me locally to improve my site.

The problem with companies like Google and Facebook arises not from the services itself but from the permeability of their services – they are everywhere, even as add-ons to other pages. Surveillance cameras in a bank are accepted by anybody – surveillance cameras on every street corner are met with suspicion – it is the same with these large companies. Their ability to track you everywhere, as their services are everywhere is where the danger lies.

In the GDR one of many reasons that brought people to the streets was oppression by the Stasi. Furthermore, Germany has had some bad experience with data gathering in its past – people will start wars for a “free world” – a world that doesn’t discriminate; they will take to the streets demanding equal rights. Here is a time bomb, ticking away – if I wanted to discriminate or profile people, Google or Facebook would be the first companies to request data from – we should not accept online what we did not accept on paper in our day to day life. Because we cannot see the eyes watching us, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

On this note – keep your account linking for a minimum and fight for data protection and as far as possible privacy online.
Thank you for reading.

This text was written in English to be accessible to a global audience – if you wish to translate it into “your” language, feel free to do so, however – quote the source (i.e. the location you originally found this document at).