THERE HAVE BEEN various expressions of surprise lately that big Internet companies have colluded with government to hand over data they have collected.
This didn’t surprise me one iota. In fact, as I reported in a piece on Facebook in 2007, the big tech companies and big government have always enjoyed a cosy relationship. One wants to collect data on consumers, and the other on citizens. And those two aims tend to coincide rather neatly.
Companies like Google and Facebook are a spy’s dream come true. No longer do the spies have to do any spying. Instead, the commercial world has invented a system whereby millions of individuals happily volunteer the most intimate details of their private life, as well as their consumer preferences, to a computer. These details are stored somewhere in the desert on the biggest computers ever made. There appears to be no coercion involved. The users of Facebook and Google wrongly think that they are being hip and up-to-date. Worse, they even believe the rhetoric of the mill owners who promote their business using words like “freedom” and “sharing”. They don’t realise that they’ve simply fallen for the biggest ad-sales-combined-with-data-collection-scam in history.
The people who fund the big tech companies, the venture capitalists, are pretty friendly with the spies. An example is the CIA’s venture capital wing, In-Q-Tel. This odd creation was launched in 1999, according to its website, “to bridge the gap between the technology needs of the U. S. Intelligence community and emerging commercial innovation.” It invests in technology start-ups. So there it is for all to see. In-Q-Tel’s first chairman was former video game creator Gilman Louie, who is closely connected via the National Venture Capital Association with Jim Breyer (net worth £1.5 billion and now on the board of Newscorp), the affable venture capitalist at Accel Partners, a major investor in Facebook.
The heads of such companies gather together at Davos each year with heads of state. It’s the same in the UK where our government is forever trying to prove that it’s really hip by talking about ridiculous nonsense like “Facebook democracy”. The big tech companies bully - or should I say “lobby” - government weaklings who will be angling for a big job when they quit politics. Companies like Google are in and out of Downing Street all day long. Establishment figures move to tech companies for the money. Google’s latest spin doctor is former Newsnight editor Peter Barron. And a senior PR at Google, Rachel Whetstone, is godmother to David Cameron’s eldest child, and is married to Tory advisor Steve Hilton. I learn from a fascinating piece by Adam Curtis (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2011/09/the_curse_of_tina.html) that Whetstone’s mother, Linda Whetstone, is a free market fanatic and former chairwoman of the International Policy Network, while her grandfather Sir Antony Fisher invented the first ever think tank, The Institute for Economic Affairs, Thatcher’s favourite. It was financed by the fortune Fisher had made bringing the factory farmed chicken system to Britain. Cool family.
Now of course spying is nothing new. In the 18th century, servants were paid by the Home Office to snoop on rabble-rousers like John Wilkes. The blundering Home Office even sent agents to the west country in the late 18th century to spy on the harmless poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, who had been seen wandering round the countryside making notes. “Spy Nozy”, as Coleridge later christened the hapless bureaucrat, assumed that they were making plans to bring arms down from Bristol. What is new is that it’s gone electronic.
I would hazard a guess that today’s spies think they are rather lucky: today their aims accord closely with the aims of commercial ventures, which is to collect as much information as possible about citizens and consumers, while making extraordinary heaps of money. The fact that Facebook et al are doing this through legal means must save them a lot of bother and money.
I am constantly amazed by how people who should know better have been seduced by Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest. Vanity is the spur. In literature, only Jonathan Franzen has taken a stand against these appalling and completely useless companies. In addition, most websites spy on you. Just install a programme called Ghostery on your computer and go to the Guardian’s website. You’ll find at least thirteen trackers. These are programmes that record your activities on the website and send that information back to the Guardian, who use it to sell ads. The spybots have names like Optimizely, Outbrain and Audience Science.
To avoid being spied on, you could adopt a few strategies. Return to letter-writing and use the services of Royal Mail. In the old days, letters were opened by spies, but they probably don’t bother these days. Keep mobile phone use to a minimum and only conduct the blandest conversations on it. Meet your friends in pubs and drink pints of beer together instead of posting status updates on Facebook. Avoid Amazon and Ebay and instead use the services of small independent companies who do less spying. Never, ever Tweet. It is undignified, for one thing.
Both business and government want to know all about you. Resist. Go underground. Join the Anti-Social Network.
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of the Idler and author of ‘How to be Idle’, ‘How to be Free’, ‘The Idle Parent’ and ‘Brave Old World’.