Along with the Pixel phones, watches and earbuds at Google’s annual showcase of software and devices last week came a pair of nifty-looking translation glasses. Put them on and real-time “subtitles” appear on the lenses as you watch a person speaking in a different language. Very cool. But the glasses aren’t commercially available. It’s also unlikely they will make anywhere near as much money as advertising does for Google’s parent, Alphabet. Of the company’s $68 billion in total revenue from the quarter ending March 31, 2022, about $54 billion came from advertising.
The scope of our own, oblivious involvement in that business is also incomparable with any other time in history.
Each time you open an app on your phone or browse the web, an auction for your eyeballs is taking place behind the scenes thanks to a thriving market for personal data. The size of that market has always been hard to pin down, but a new report from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, which has aggressively campaigned for years in the US and Europe to put limits on the trade of digital data, has now put a figure to it. The report, which the council shared with Bloomberg Opinion, says ad platforms transmit the location data and browsing habits of Americans and Europeans about 178 trillion times each year. According to the report, Google transmits the same kind of data more than 70 billion times daily, across both regions.
It is hard for humans to conceptualise such numbers, even if machines calculate them comfortably everyday — but if the exhaust of our personal data could be seen in the same way pollution can, we’d be surrounded by an almost impenetrable haze that gets thicker the more we interact with our phones. Quantified another way: By way of online activity and location, a person in the US is exposed 747 times each day to real-time bidding, according to the data. The council says its unnamed source has special access to a manager of an ad campaign run by Google. (The figure doesn’t include personal data transmitted by Meta Platform’s Facebook or Amazon.com’s ad networks, meaning the true measure of all broadcast data is probably much larger.)
Why does any of that matter? Apps are mostly free and useful after all, and there are no obvious negative consequences to being digitally mined for data.
Except, there have been. At least one large advertising network has admitted to passing user data on to the Department of Homeland Security and other government entities to track mobile phones without warrants, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report.
The stakes are now higher with the prospect of a widespread abortion ban in the US.
Each time a smartphone user opens an app or website that shows ads, their device shares data about that user to help show them a targeted ad. The advertiser with the highest bid for the ad space wins.
The data can go to dozens or even hundreds of companies for each auction.
More data broadcasting means greater chances of misuse with advertising turning into ambient surveillance.
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