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The Screens We Watch are Watching Us

The life of a student typically consists of staring at a monitor for half a decade, pulling regular all-nighters to meet that lingering deadline, mastering your craft in the art of referencing and memorization, and hopefully coming out if it all with an overpriced piece of paper that’ll land you that dream job they always talk about in the movies. But did it ever occur to you, that the screens we spend so much time watching are watching us back?

I never really gave much thought to it, until a couple weeks ago, that is. I was minding my own business, studying for my business midterm when I came across ‘The Big Five’ personality traits. As I often do, I googled a word on my phone that seemed arbitrary to simplify one of the hundred terms listed in my sixteen page study guide for a test consisting of 30 multiple choice questions. My computer then got a notification that it needed an update so I set my Mac down and let it do its thing. To pass the time I grabbed my iPhone and Youtubed my girl Taylor Swift’s new songs and listened to them 1 or 5 times while the update finished. After painfully watching the impending wheel of doom spin at me for longer than I’m comfortable to admit, I pulled up Instagram for a little meme therapy. This is where it gets weird. I clicked on my sunset coloured circle inside a square and was completely shook to find that the first ad to pop up on my feed was none other than a suggested app that matches The Big Five personality traits to your favourite celebrities and what was even weirder was it had auto-populated Taylor Swift. A chill ran down my spine and I quickly looked through out my window partially expecting to see a CIA kidnap van parked outside. Realizing I was acting like a crazy person, I turned my gaze to my supposedly trusted Apple products and felt myself start to wake up.

As a first-year student in Computing Systems, I’ve always heard my profs talk about the threat of IT surveillance and algorithms but if it wasn’t going to be on the exam, I didn’t let it take up too much space in my CPU if you know what I mean. I would always go to lecture and laugh at the people I saw with duct tape over their computer and phone cameras and compare them to the types who carried only cash, had no last names and wore tin foil hats in public. Then I started thinking about it rationally. In this age, we would be completely naïve to believe that everything we search, send, receive and participate in online wasn’t being monitored. We leave a trail in everything we do on the Internet and are watched closely through our E-mail, Google, Youtube. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or whatever your social media poison is. Our activity is then decoded by algorithms and strategically marketed back to us in the form of goods and services these technologies know we will be interested in. Feeling invaded yet?

What I found to be most the daunting factor in this interweb of lies was that this is all perfectly legal due to one technological loophole; we don’t actually own our devices at all, we just own the hardware. The manufacturers are the real owners because we use their software to make the devices work. It’s kind of like buying a house, but having the people who built it legally allowed to set up hidden cameras everywhere and watch you at their own leisure because they installed the plumbing and insulation. The Internet is still emerging and remains a grey area which is what’s preventing many laws and policies from being made in order to protect our privacy. Whether this is your first time learning this information and I inadvertently just ruined your cinema dream job in becoming the next Prime Minister, or if you’ve known about this for years and are just trying to fly under the radar, it’s important to always be mindful of what you search, who has access to it, and who could be watching you back. #StayWoke Trent University.

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