The trade-offs of 'Big Brother' - Denny Scott editorial
A couple weeks back I was trying to figure out where our relatives had purchased a chair they gifted to us. The chair, which was “the feeding chair” when my daughter Mary Jane was nursing, was an expensive and welcome gift that to this day remains in Mary Jane’s room and is a great piece of furniture.
The store it came from, however, is no longer under the same name, which made it very difficult to track down. Thankfully, Google came to the rescue.
After a few minutes of fruitless searching through various keywords through the omnipresent search engine, I was about to give up when I noticed that one of the results said, “You visited this business five years ago.”
Now, I know for a fact I didn’t visit a store by that name five years ago. The price of what was purchased, alongside the delivery price, is something that will forever be burned into my memory (alongside the name of the store). However, a quick spin through the store’s indoor photos showed that it was the place I remembered and seemed to carry the same brands.
The reason Google had recorded me visiting it was because I had used my Google phone’s GPS to get there, so the visit was saved.
It was great to be able to turn to the relative who had requested the information and say, without a doubt, that this was the place.
My relative aptly pointed out that it was a little disturbing how much of our lives is recorded and under the watchful eye of Big Brother. However, that’s the deal we make, right? We give up a little bit of our privacy to make our lives easier.
It’s not a new notion. The very idea of society is that we give up a little bit of our earnings and our individual rights for the better of the community at large. When, however, we start giving up our privacy to private companies like Google, some people balk.
Personally, I’ve got no problem with it. The old adage of, “I’ve got nothing to hide” comes to mind, but in reality, I find the value I get for a little bit of my personal data is worthwhile.
You probably do it as well. Have you ever signed up for a customer loyalty program? If so, your shopping preferences are being recorded to help businesses better understand what you like. What do you get in return? A discount.
Companies like Facebook and Google always seem to be listening to what we’re saying, as ads show up the next day based on it. It’s a little intrusive, but there are ways to turn off those features.
If you’re uncomfortable with these situations, the answer is simple: Don’t buy an Alexa or a Siri speaker, buy burner phones with no data or Google/Android/Apple operating systems on them and buy as much “dumb” technology (or technology that doesn’t connect to companies like Google) as possible: manual thermostats, regular lightbulbs and basic televisions.
Oh, and don’t have a Google account. Don’t use Google and stay away from any software/websites that request your data.
It’s a lot to do, and, in my opinion it’s fruitless: governments and businesses have been tracking people for years, from government-issued IDs to asking for your postal code when you shop anywhere.
However, there is one line I’ve always felt uncomfortable with and that’s my employer spying on me.
Before I go any further, I’ll say that The Citizen and its parent company North Huron Publishing Company Ltd. aren’t guilty of that kind of activity. What I say I’m doing and where I say I’m going are taken at face value because we’re all adults and we’re all, presumably, working towards the same goals.
However that wasn’t the experience of a school custodian in Alberta.
In a CBC story this week, Michelle Dionne explained that she was fired for not downloading “tattleware”, or software designed to track employees. Her employer says declining to download the software, which would track when she got to work and when she left, was not the only cause of her dismissal.
“Tattleware” is software that tracks employees and can take many forms: it can track a person’s location while in a specific area (like a workplace), track activity on a computer or track all movement.
The problem with Dionne’s situation, in my opinion, is that the company required her to install the software on her own personal phone. Granted, I’ve acquired a number of programs to help with my job, but I’ve done so of my own free will and not been forced to do that.
If it was a business phone, provided to her by her employer, I’d say she has to do as asked, but at what point do we stop our employers from invading our home lives?
In the end, it comes down to agency. We should be able to choose how much of our lives we’re giving up to our employers. I’m on Dionne’s side here in that she should not have been asked to install the software, let alone required to do so. Choice is what matters.