Opt-Out. Really?

In this week’s book review, Ralf Grötker details some of the consequences of Silicon Valley surveillance. I must admit, I was shocked to learn that Android phones monitor the movements of their owner by tracking wi-fi networks. In Netopia’s report Can We Make the Digital World Ethical?, the authors suggest a concept called “device sanctity” – the idea is that devices like smartphones must be loyal to their owners, rather than the manufacturers, telecom carriers or various software providers. Grötker’s account of Julia Angwin’s Dragnet Nation only underlines the urgency of this principle.

When faced with the downsides of private surveillance, Silicon Valley’s response is that it is always possible to opt-out – which means not using the service. But is that really true? Read Janet Vertesi’s experiment of trying to keep her pregnancy secret to prying algorithm eyes online in this Time Magazine story. (Spoiler alert: she ends up looking like a criminal)

This brings to mind a five year old Wired Magazine-story where the reporter Evan Ratliff vanishes and challenge readers to hunt him down, following his tracks online. Five years on, our digital lives are much more tied to our meatspace presence. Spoiler alert: Ratliff is eventually caught by the owners of Naked Pizza, a chain that specialises in gluten free pizza pies. After years of waiting, I finally got the chance to try it two years ago. Turns out opting out of gluten is much easier than opting out of online monitoring.