U.S. Government Can Track You Through Companies’ Online Ads

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In his latest book, Byron Tau explains how the U.S. government collaborated with tech companies to utilize ad exchanges to monitor citizens’ every move.

  • Ad tech tracks online behavior, generating advertising IDs sold to the highest bidder.
  • Geolocation data is crucial for advertisers, enabling targeted ads based on location.
  • Dating apps like Grindr leaked user data to advertisers, exposing users to potential surveillance.
  • The U.S. government took advantage of this.

The U.S. government exploited the ad tech ecosystem to create an extensive system of surveillance that monitors people’s online and offline activities.

In his newly published book, “Means of Control: How the Hidden Alliance of Tech and Government Is Creating a New American Surveillance State,” Byron Tau explored the collaboration between the government and tech companies in collecting and analyzing data from various sources.

The book argues that the system that the collaboration created infringes on people’s privacy rights and civil liberties. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it isn’t the first time the government has weaponized its people and their data. In 2001, after the 9/11 tragedy, the U.S. government and its allies at the time initiated the War on Terror, fueled by the citizens’ data. Data that was procured without the people’s knowledge or permission.

This time, however, they didn’t need to be underhanded. Oh no. They went straight to the well of data and exploited the ad tech ecosystem. They went to the tech and ad tech companies to whom you already willingly gave your data.

The way ad tech works is pretty simple. It tracks your online behavior, including websites, searches, purchases, and apps. There are companies out there that gather every individual’s data and give it an advertising ID. They group these IDs into audiences and sell them to the highest bidder. The bid is triggered and done in milliseconds when you visit a website. This results in targeted ads meant to tempt the people who are most likely to click and/or purchase. Here’s the kicker. Even the ones who lost the bid “still have access to all the consumer data that came off the phone during the bid request.”

Tau explains that geolocation is one of the most important pieces of data an advertiser can gain. “[Geolocation] can be used to deliver targeted advertising based on location for, say, a restaurant chain that wants to deliver targeted ads to people nearby,” he wrote. He goes on to explain how, despite the advertising ID, an individual’s movements and routines are unique to them. So, it won’t take much to deduce who’s who. He uses himself as an example of this, “For many years, I lived in a small 13-unit walk-up in Washington, DC. I was the only person waking up every morning at that address and going to The Wall Street Journal’s offices. Even if I was just an anonymized number, my behavior was as unique as a fingerprint even in a sea of hundreds of millions of others.”

Do you use a dating app? Maybe Tinder? Or Grindr? Perhaps even Eharmony? Well, if you do, you might want to be more cautious and conscious about it now. See, these apps rely on your GPS to show you your closest possible suitors. Awesome and efficient, right?

Well, it turns out these apps leaked data to online advertisers. Their lax security measures were as useful as a screen door on a submarine. Apparently, people with some, but not necessarily extensive, tech knowledge could access Grindr users’ geolocation data using ad exchanges. Once accessed, the information could be analyzed.

In 2019, Mike Yeagley took this information to every government conference room willing to hear him. He wanted to demonstrate how malicious actors could use this to get an in on these government agencies’ personnel. Little did he know that he handed the government the key to the very kingdom they promised to protect.

What ended up happening is that the government decided to take advantage of this backdoor. Several agencies admitted to using this data for surveillance. They had software that allowed the government access to data from tech companies under specific legal frameworks. There’s also a good chance they purchased the specific data they needed from data brokers.

This isn’t news. We knew, or at least had a hunch, that the governments saw us as nothing more than bundles of information. Transparency of any kind, let alone when it comes to data, was never its strong suit. But to have it confirmed like this. First, Edward Snowden. Now, Mike Yeagley. They threw money at the problem, and poof! Solved!

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