You are being monitored. Your smartphone is always listening to you (even if you try to deny permission. I just tested this). Facial recognition technology is now in place at New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority crossings. Google, Apple, and Amazon all offer smart devices that listen to you all the time. At work and at home, every website you visit is recorded in logs, 24/7. Your Internet provider has a record of every single site that you surf, along with date and time stamps, so does your Internet router. Security cameras record you nearly anywhere you go. Every time you use your credit card there is a record of how much you spent, as well as when and where you spent it. Smart cars track exactly where you are and how you drive. With the rise of artificial intelligence, it is only a matter of time before all of this data can be aggregated in real time to keep track of you proactively. By developing patterns, it is likely our behavior can even be predicted. Imagine receiving a delivery from Amazon an hour before you order it. Is that so farfetched?
Even when we are given a choice, we routinely sign away our privacy rights. We do this in exchange for the convenience of using Google, Facebook, and other internet offerings. Who bothers to read the mountains of legalese buried in the Terms and Conditions page? Would we even understand what we are surrendering? Why are so many services free on the internet? How do these companies make money? How do these same companies become some of the most profitable firms on the planet if they give away their offerings for free to consumers?
The answer is that we, the consumers, ARE the product. The colossal avalanche of data we generate is very valuable. Everything about us from how we shop to where we go, from our internet searches to all of our habits, makes it easier to target us with specific advertising geared to a precise demographic. Who is most likely to purchase anti-aging cream? Which people are in the market for a home? Who makes over $100,000 a year? Who pays more for organic food? Who orders food for delivery more than three times a week?
These companies know more about us than we know about ourselves, and they customize the audience to include only those most likely to purchase a particular product or service. That is much more valuable than paying for an ad in a newspaper or in a magazine because the return on investment is much higher.
Some people, groups, and even governments, are fighting back. The European Union implemented the General Data Protection Regulation in May of 2018. The California Consumer Privacy Act just took effect on January 1, 2020. These laws were passed to help protect consumer privacy and take back control of their personal data. People now have the right to know what is being recorded about them, to request that they not be tracked, and that existing data be deleted. They can better control if and how their data is sold to third parties, and hopefully not be discriminated against for doing so.
These laws are an excellent first step, but they are limited in what they regulate. Smaller companies may be exempt, and enforcement is a significant challenge.
The concept of constant surveillance is nothing new to Jewish people. We are taught from an early age the famous teaching in Pirkei Avos: “Know what is above you: An eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all of your deeds are written in a book” (Chapter 2). We believe that Hashem is constantly monitoring our actions, our words, and even our thoughts. It is our sacred task in life to direct our hearts and minds to studying His Torah and obeying His commandments in every situation. This applies every moment of every day, as long as we live. No detail falls outside the purview of Torah, and there is no matter too foreign to discuss with one’s Rav. This is how the Jewish people have thrived for millennia. Amazon can never beat that.