Israeli start-ups, data collection and the end of privacy

Companies are monitoring our every move, online and offline, and the battle for privacy is all but over, says digital insider Adir Regev.

Facebook (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
 The battle between online privacy and data sharing is no battle all. Privacy has lost.
That’s what Adir Regev, the founder and owner of GO Digital Marketing, thinks, and he should know. His company, like so many in the digital age, tries to collect data in order to help companies target their ads to the right audiences. It’s what makes the digital world go round.
And many of the companies pioneering the data collection are Israeli.
“I think that about 50% of the start-ups are coming from Israel,” he said. “We’re very good at analytical advertising, and we’re very good at surveillance. You put those together and we become very good at predicting which products you will buy.”
Although many people are aware that their privacy is infringed upon to some degree, few are fully cognizant of the extent of the information that companies have about them.
“I’m not sure we actually understand how much of our lives are already digitized,” Regev said, as he laid out a long, alarming list of methods companies use to gather data.
While many people are aware that their Web browsers contain beacons and cookies that track their Web viewing habits, there are many more subtle ways that companies infer information. Companies such as ClickTale, for example, follow people’s mouse movements to get an idea of how they’re interacting with websites.
“People don’t realize that most of their lives are digitalized in places that we don’t think of,” Regev said. “Even when we’re not posting on Facebook, companies are tracking what we’re doing, not just online but off-line.”
For example, Facebook may track your “likes,” but even if you make sure to never like anything on the social media site, it can infer a lot about you based on your friends’ likes, what content you click on and how long you watch a video. Even if you’re not tagged in a photo, its facial recognition software has a pretty good guess that it’s you.
Then there’s your smartphone, which tracks you everywhere you go. Regev demonstrates how users can look up the kinds of data points Google stores on them – he pulls up a random day from the summer in his account, during which his phone tracked where he went and guessed what he was doing there. The search giant could infer, for example, that he was heading to the hotel that emailed him a confirmation booking after he went to Ben-Gurion Airport and turned off his phone.
Even without GPS, and even on airplane mode, if the phone’s Wi-Fi feature is on, it can leave little footprints every time it passes by a wireless signal. When your phone searches for Wi-Fi, Regev says, it does a sort of “handshake” with networks it comes across. Savvy companies can potentially mine that data.
Google also keeps recordings of the voice-based searches he’s made, which he demonstrates are playable from his Google account.
And there’s more.
“Every smartphone has seven or eight sensors,” he said. “They’ll know your height, how you move and the magnetic resonance, and now we know that every building in the world has a different magnetic resonance, so it can tell what building you’re in. It knows what floor it’s on because there’s a barometric sensor.”
Another example of how companies can cleverly infer things about you in unexpected ways comes from Israeli defense contractor Rafael, which alongside a research group at Stanford University found a way to track people’s location, with up to 90% accuracy, just based on their battery usage.
Earlier this summer, Yuval Elovici, director of the Deutsche Telekom Laboratories at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, while speaking at a cybersecurity conference, scoffed at the notion that only data people made available was available.
“Do you think I, as a cybersecurity expert, need the user to tell me their gender? I can even tell if they’re not sure about it!” he joked. People’s behaviors are so often linked to their various characteristics that the data collected by mobile phones can be used to infer things about the user.
One tracker Elovici worked on could figure out people’s blood alcohol content with 95% accuracy, based solely on data their smartphone was collecting.
Even if such data isn’t public and is accessible only to the company and the user, the sheer volume of data can be unnerving.
The reputable online companies, however, may be only the tip of the iceberg. One hundred and twenty- nine companies are registered with the Digital Advertising Association, and they report the kind of data they collect and offer ways to opt out of their data collection.
“People like to talk about Google and Facebook as the big bad wolves, but there are hundreds of companies that don’t declare they’re collecting your data,” he said.
The siren cry to consumer electronics users is that there are many ways for companies to access (or infer) data about them that they never agreed to share, but in truth, few people are aware of what kind of data they signed away in the first place.
If users were to actually decide to pay attention to all the terms and conditions they agreed to, it would take them an average of 201 hours a year just to read through all contracts they agree to, according to a study by Limor Shmerling Magazanik, director of Licensing & Inspection at the Israeli Law, Information & Technology Authority.
Instead, people just click “agree” when they start using a product and hope for the best.
In the same vein, people may choose to opt out of certain data sharing, but that can limit the range of services to which users are growing accustomed. If Google doesn’t know where you are, it won’t give you a helpful response to “movie times” or “weather” when you type that into your search bar.
Regev thinks that, over time, people will simply grow accustomed to the lower level of privacy, seeing it as an acceptable trade-off for the convenient services the Internet has to offer.
“I think that privacy is something that we see as an issue in our way of looking at life, but generation Z won’t give privacy so much weight,” he said. “Values are changing from the generations. My mom used to tell me that her grandma was furious that she danced swing with my dad.”