Privacy Can Protect You From Manipulation

This blog post is likely going to sound like tin-foil hat paranoia, but please hear me out.

We all like to think that we’re smart. That doesn’t mean we’re arrogant, it’s just human nature. I’m not even talking about the fact that we don’t know what we don’t know – therefore we may think we know a good bit about a subject when in reality we’ve barely scratched the surface. No, I’m talking about the absolutely dumb things we do. Story time: in my previous life as a freelance audio guy, I was once setting up the audio for an event. I plugged everything in, turned on the board, slowly pushed up the volume and… nothing. Absolutely nothing. I checked my connections. I checked the speakers. I tried a different mic. I spent a good 15 minutes or so troubleshooting. Why the heck wasn’t I hearing anything? Then, suddenly, I noticed the little red “mute” light above the master fader. Sheepishly, I turned the master down, unmuted it, slowly brought it back up, and there was my voice loud and clear. I got a paid a lot of money that day to forget to check the mute button. Now, obviously making a dumb mistake like that doesn’t detract from my intelligence. I still know a lot and have a ton of experience. But it does show that no matter how long you’ve been at it, how many times you’ve done something, or simple and obvious the fix is, sometimes you make mistakes.

Let me make a quick transition back to privacy and security: I despise being called an “influencer.” I prefer to think of myself as an educator, but I hope to god I’m not “influencing” anyone. That’s because most modern influencers are just advertisers, and I don’t want to advertise things, especially subtly. While I’m not a fan of ads, I don’t mind “this episode is brought to you by Sponsor” or the show pausing for a commercial. What I absolutely abhor is subtle advertising. “Here’s a review of a product that’s actually an ad” or – even worse – “let me tell you about this awesome new thing I’m into, but I was actually paid to say that and I don’t really use it myself.”

And now, let’s bring them together: we all like to think we’re smarter than we really are. You probably read that last paragraph and went “ugh, same. I would never fall for that.” But you probably have. Let me ask you this: do you have ANY products with logos on them? Laptops, phones, shirts, backpacks, etc? If the answer is “yes,” congratulations! You’re a walking ad for that product – and you actually paid THEM to advertise for them, no less. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I buy shirts from bands I like, and I wear shirts for privacy-related companies I like. I want to advertise those bands and brands because I believe in them and want others to know about them. But you’ve probably never thought about it like that before, have you? It’s so easy to say “ads don’t work on me.” And some don’t. I have never seen a TV commercial for a product and gone “hey, I’m interested in that.” But I have seen a commercial for Taco Bell's latest menu item and went “alright, I’m curious.” I don’t pay attention to billboards until I see one for DuckDuckGo and then stop mid-sentence to go “Ay! DuckDuckGo!”

A lot of people misunderstand the purpose of advertising. They think the purpose is to make you drop everything and sprint to the nearest McDonald’s to buy a new McHeartAttack, but that’s not it at all. In the 1980’s, they called it “brand awareness.” The goal is to keep the brand on your mind so that next time you’re out of the office and going “man, I’m kinda hungry,” your brain remembers that McDonald’s has a dollar menu. (Note: so does Wendy’s, and their food doesn’t taste like cardboard and disappointment smothered in ketchup.) Sometimes the goal is also to create subconscious correlations. I once had the privilege of hearing a former marketing director for Coors speak. Dude is a genius. Sleazy, but brilliant. He said that they were one of the first companies to start marketing beer as “ice cold.” Do you remember Coors’ marketing campaign from a few years back? Icy, arctic mountains, cold fog everywhere. Why is that? Cold = refreshing. They didn’t want to say “go buy Coors.” They wanted you to associate Coors with cold and refreshing drinks, making you more likely to buy one. Gatorade does the same thing with energy and athletics: feeling thirsty, dehydrated? Gatorade will rehydrate you, get you going, help you crush it. (It’s got what plants crave, after all.)

So what does this all have to do with privacy? Because privacy can help break this cycle. Remember: we’re not as smart as we think we are. That goes for all of us, myself included. I’m not Prometheus bringing you fire, I’m a cancer patient in the same ward as you. My friends and I joke about the time I walked into Guitar Center and walked out with an Ibanez guitar and it wasn’t until I was in the parking lot going “did I just buy an Ibanez?” (Ibanez makes great bass guitars, okay regular guitars. I never thought I’d buy an Ibanez guitar, but I did once. It was okay.) We all fall for it. Look no further than the now-legendary Cambridge Analytica scandal. This was when a company accessed tons of user data from Facebook that they weren’t supposed to access and abused it, unarguably contributing in vital ways to the successful election of Donald Trump and the passing of Brexit in 2016. Facebook user data literally altered history. I’m not saying that Brexit wouldn’t have happened without Cambridge Analytica, it’s hard to know for sure because it was such a hot, controversial topic. Same with Donald Trump: I’m not saying that he would’ve lost in 2016 without them, but Cambridge Analytica executives admit to being responsible for keeping “Hillary’s emails” in the forefront of the national debate, in addition to tons of other issues that Americans will remember from that time frame.

It’s hard to explain how Cambridge Analytica worked, because just as with normal advertising, you read about it and go “how did people fall for that? I wouldn’t have.” But people did. The very, very broad version is that Cambridge Analytica used a quiz to access user data – not just those who took the quiz but also friends of those who took the quiz. This included all kinds of information like age, gender, likes, and more. They were then able to use this information to paint a picture of that person – for example, “this person is a Christian parent with conservative values” – and then cater specifically to that person. But it’s so much deeper than that. “This person is a Christian parent – age 34 – of two children – ages 11 and 4, both girls – with conservative values. Specifically they worry about the quality of the education system and feel that their values are being attacked by the left. They enjoy police procedural TV show and listen to country music.” Cambridge Analytica would then use this data to serve ads from shell companies and fake Facebook pages set up specifically by them to say things like “Donald Trump wants to invest in education!” and show them country musicians endorsing Donald Trump and religious pages saying that Donald Trump is God’s choice of candidate. This is not hypothetical, this is exactly what happened. These pages might even post memes – like “remember Hillary's emails?” – or blatantly untrue news stories – also from “news” sites that were created specifically for profit without regard to reporting truthfully. And it’s so difficult to convey how insidious this truly was, because any American reading this goes “yeah, that’s pretty common” and “yeah, so what if they know all that information about me?” It doesn’t truly convey how effective this type of advertising is and how invasive the data actually is. Take a moment real quick to skim this article from Signal about targeted advertising on Instagram for some better context about how granular and invasive ads can be.

And look, I’m with you. I don’t mind targeted ads. The problem is when ads don’t look like ads. Because that’s – in my opinion – one of the biggest issues that made the Cambridge Analytica incident so successful. It’s one thing to say “sponsored post” at the top. It’s also okay to say “and now a word from our sponsors.” But what happens when a post looks like any other post? What happens when you think someone is genuinely saying “I think Trump is God’s candidate” and you don’t know that person is actually an atheist leftist being paid to post that to help someone else win a position of power? How do you know that person really shares your values if they’re willing to invest so much time and resources into lying about it just to get that seat? I’m not trying to be political here, I think we can all agree that this is disingenuous and destructive. It’s a betrayal of trust for your own ends. And sure, all politicians are liars – claiming to be “believers” when they aren’t just for votes – but that’s not the point. Focus here. The problem is that you’re being assaulted with it, 24/7 and often in very subtle ways. We’re not as smart as we think we are. We can’t always detect it. And if you aren’t aware of what’s happening, how can you defend against it?

Cambridge Analytica was not an isolated incident. There are still many companies and intelligence agencies – many from Russia, China, and Iran – that run fake social media profiles and organizations designed to sew chaos and disruption. They question facts, promote candidates, and sew disinformation and sensationalized headlines all in an effort to cause further division and confusion. I said at the top this post would sound like tin-foil hat stuff, but it’s not. This is real. It’s still happening all around the world as we speak.

So how can privacy help us fight back? In two ways: first, by closing the door. They say that the average person sees 6,000 – 10,000 ads per day. Remember that in this context, “ads” includes everything from billboards, t-shirts with logos, radio ads, TV commercials, and yes – those fake videos and posts that claim to be legitimate endorsements but are really paid ads. One of the major tenants of digital privacy is minimalism: don’t sign up for an account unless you really need it. Do you really need Facebook AND Instagram AND Twitter AND TikTok AND Snapchat AND…? Probably not. Pick the one or two you use and stick to those. (Better yet, delete social media altogether because those companies are highly invasive to your privacy – don’t forget that Cambridge Analytica didn’t collect all this data themselves, they stole it from Facebook.) By limiting the number of accounts you have – whether that’s social media accounts, streaming accounts, online shopping, etc – you’ll be exposed to fewer ads targeted specifically to you.

Second: the targeting. If you must use an invasive advertising platform like Twitter or Hulu, privacy helps reduce the accuracy of the information. By blocking trackers and ads, opting out of invasive platforms that collect data, and using privacy tools like encrypted email and VPNs, you’re reducing the amount of data flowing to these organizations, which makes it harder for them to build an accurate profile on you and thus harder for them to accurately advertise to you. Like most of you, I get tons of political campaign SMS messages around election season. These people seem to think I’m a black Democrat from Ohio. (Spoiler alert: I’m white from Texas, I won’t disclose my political leanings but I will say it’s not “Democrat.”) If you’re pro-life, it’s pretty hard to fall for a pro-choice ad no matter how subtle. If you’re an “ACAB” person (for those who don’t know, that basically means “vehemently anti-cop,”) then a “back the blue” ad is just gonna make you laugh in derision. By regaining your privacy, you’re reducing the chances that they can accurately serve you an ad that actually sways you.

Before I go: I think changing your mind is good and healthy. I don’t think anyone knows everything. I have my political opinions, and I’m sure some of them are wrong. But I don’t think that it’s good to have your mind changed subliminally by people who just want power and money. I think your mind should be changed by healthy, transparent discussions and evidence. So whatever your political leanings reading this: be open-minded. Be willing to change your opinions. But protect your privacy so that people aren’t manipulating you, changing your opinions for you, and tricking you by taking advantage of your loyalties to make you do things you wouldn’t normally otherwise do.

Privacy matters. I’m sorry for the long post, and I apologize if it seemed very messy and paranoid. Like I said, this stuff sounds hard to believe for some, and for many it’s hard to wrap our minds around how it could work so well, but it did and it does. Don’t let it happen again. Protect your privacy.

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