This was my introduction:
It was two years ago that I spent a semester at University of Vermont. My first week there, I shopped at the Burlington Food Coop, buying a lot of produce and a can of organic tomatoes. The next day, the Google ads on my OpEdNews page included an ad from the local supermarket chain for canned tomatoes for half what I paid at the Coop. I figured this meant that Google knows my credit card numbers and gets copies of itemized purchase confirmations from retailers. (I think that the credit card company knows only the name of the retailer and the total amount authorized.)
This was eye-opening. It made me think of Big Brother and the ubiquitous TV screens in 1984. But I've since noticed the same thing so many times I've gotten used to it. Just this week, I bought anti-fungal athlete's foot creme at the local CVS, and the next day I noticed Google ads on several web sites displaying ads for Lamasil (the brand-name version of which I had purchased the generic). This is routine. It no longer evokes so much as a yawn.
But the knee brace was a step more intrusive, and I was surprised.
Back in 2005, I remember a Google Voice service that accepted telephone messages and delivered them to me as text. The accuracy was both impressive and risible. Sometimes I could figure out what the text messages were trying to say. In recent years, I'm aware that Dragon Dictate and other voice recognition systems have become impressively more accurate. What I didn't realize is that there is technology that transcribes and interprets natural voice out of any context, without training and without external clues about its meaning. Or at least that's what I now think.
A month ago I hurt my knee running. It hasn't affected anything except my exercise routine, but it isn't getting better either. Sunday night, I discussed the knee in a skype conversation with an out-of-town friend, and she told me, in turn, the story of her knee injury 6 years ago. She recommended that I get a knee brace, an elastic sleeve that fits over that part of the leg and lends support.
Now, I haven't purchased any product connected with the injury, nor have I browsed any web sites related to the condition. But yesterday evening in my in-box was this ad:
ASOTV Copperwear Knee Best.Knee.Support@cool-knee-support.me via mathforum.org Effective compression provides excellent support to the muscles and joints of the knee during sports or exercise.
My first thought was to ask my friend if she had found this company and given them my email address. She said no, she hadn't. My next thought was to email Martin Truther, who wrote the Red Pill Guide to How the World Works.
Here's what Martin answered:
I think it's probably safe to assume many (maybe all?) phone calls are stored and converted to text, then sifted for key words for both "security" and advertising purposes. The technology exists and both markets have compelling reasons to utilize it if they can. Public/private split can be used to hide programs from FOIA and other disclosure mechanisms, so there are probably many partnerships-- both between public and private sector and between governments (5 eyes, etc.).
So, I think it is mostly machines listening to the conversations and when Obama says "no one is listening to your phone calls" or words to that effect, it is partly true because a speech recognition machine is not someone-- not a person.
I've been somewhat annoyed how facebook ads track my health-related searches on google. It would be interesting to design some experiments with you to see how pervasive things are now.
Martin Truther is not his real name. Martin has a well-developed web presence on deep politics and a job as a corporate software consultant, and he is not eager for those two worlds to collide. Martin's true identity is known only to himself, to me, and the NSA.
What Martin is saying is that, as the U.S. government continues its merger with big business, we have to expect that gathering commercially useful information about consumers and gathering politically useful information about citizens become seamlessly integrated into a single operation. Amazon made headlines briefly last year with a $600 million CIA contract. (Kinda makes you feel all warm and fuzzy about Bezos owning the Washington Post.) "Google's connections to the American intelligence community run deep", reports QuestionEverything. Microsoft is rumored by RT to have placed a back door in Windows security at the "request" of the NSA. Apple's iPhone is reported by Forbes to be similarly compromised. And Facebook's connections to the CIA have become so well-known that the line between satire and reporting is nowhere to be found.