Thursday, February 7, 2019

They're Everywhere

Confession time.

This blog is posted via Blogger, a Google service.  My personal email is a gmail account, connected to my calendar and contacts.  I use Google Maps for directions and a lot of illustrations.  We use Google Keep for prayer requests in our Journey Group, a way of seeing the different praises and requests and watching them get answered.  I have two internet domains through Google domains.

The blog posts to Facebook daily, which I also peruse, looking for updates on family and friends.

I'm an Amazon Prime Member, taking advantage of the shipping benefits, prime video, and prime music.  We have three smart speakers in our home that are used daily.  I often read the Apocrypha through the Kindle app.

We are an Apple family.  Generally Macs offer better options for set, sound, and light design, so a Macbook Air has been Jamie's laptop of choice.  We have iPhones.  I'm still rocking an old school clickwheel iPod that will be used until it dies in my hands.  Jamie and I both have an iPad, her a mini, me a gen 2.  Digital comics are just much better on a tablet.  I have a Mac Mini and have a large iTunes library.  We cut cable and watch everything through an Apple TV.  I wanted the security in the systems of Apple's famed walled garden.

And I would not be able to function at work without access to Microsoft products.

With all of that as a backdrop, it may be time to admit that the tech giants have a little too much insight into our personal lives and a little too much control on the digital world.

Kashmir Hill, deputy editor for the Special Projects Desk at Gizmodo, has been writing a fascinating series of articles on spending a week trying to do without each of the tech giants.  This week, she posted her article regarding the week where she tried to do completely without the Big 5: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.  It's a fascinating and slightly terrifying look at the impact these tech companies have on our lives.  Even in surprising ways.

For example, you might think Amazon would be easy to cut out.  Don't buy anything on their platform, don't watch a Prime Video, listen to Prime Music and don't talk to Alexa.  Plus avoiding Whole Foods now for good measure (I would have to give up PillPack, my mail order prescription service as well).

That's the easy part.  The problem comes with the segment that generates the most revenue for Amazon - Amazon Web Services, a vast server network that provides the backbone for most of the internet.  Just interacting with governmental websites would involve connecting with Amazon Web Services.  Government agencies love Amazon Web Services, like the U.S. Government Accountability Office's website.  If you cut out Amazon Web Services, Airbnb doesn't work.  Nor does Words with Friends. Netflix.  HBO Go.  The workplace communication tool Slack.

There's also the problem of the internet of things. "Smart" devices connected to the internet, that continually check back in with a server to verify activity and status.  Televisions, appliances, lightbulbs, thermostats, etc.  These devices are checking in with the server and connecting at times that we may not even ever be aware of.  Our phones and mobile devices are worse.  If they are on, they are communicating with a tower or server, whether we are interacting with them or not.

Surprisingly, in Ms. Hill's study, she found Amazon to be the one company and service that her devices were trying to connect to the most.  95,260 attempts to interact with an Amazon server by her devices during the week.  That's over twice the amount of the other four combined.  Further, the combined control that Google and Amazon have over internet services should raise concerns among even the most ardent libertarian capitalists.

I write this, not to scare anyone off their devices.  I'm not going to become a luddite or begin divesting myself of the devices that I interact with.  I do not think there is any need to start pushing completely off the grid yet.

I write and draw attention to the articles because I feel it is imperative that we are cognizant of how much of our daily lives are becoming dependent on these companies and their services.  Even if we cannot immediately see it.  Reading this article alone means you are interacting with at least two or three of them.

I also raise to suggest that maybe it is time for oversight.  Should these companies be treated like the monopolies of old?  Europe is moving in that direction, but the United States has been ever reluctant to do so.  Perhaps it is time for a change.

We certainly live in interesting times.  And while it's not time for the tinfoil yet, it might be time to invest in a good VPN.

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