The future of computing is a battle for your personal information

The future of computing is a battle for your personal information

Summary: The organisations that are looking to invent, and dominate the next era of computing are, at their heart, based on advertising revenue, and in the process of owning the future, these companies and their device-based competitors will treat the personal information of consumers as a prized commodity.


Despite the best efforts of device vendors and their software brethren, the platform upon which all forms of computing are based is becoming increasingly commoditised. It should come as no surprise though, it follows a well-worn playbook of increasing performance for less cost that has been the defining characteristic of the industry since its conception.

With margins continuing to disappear from both hardware and software sales, the next goldmine for computing is in the gleaning of information from the repositories of information that businesses create in going about their activities. Look no further than the excitement surrounding big data for an example of how reprocessing information is looked upon as the next big thing.

The pure how of technology that was formerly the be all and end all of innovation has had a touch of its gloss removed by the who behind the technology.

In each area of technology impacting everyday consumers' lives, there are three companies that time and time again, find themselves battling for supremacy: Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

With the number of large multi-billion dollar acquisitions under its belt, and in an expanding number of categories, it's time to add Facebook into the league of behemoth technology companies looking to define our computing future.

And when you look at the current number of moonshot programs in the works — virtual reality, automated cars, cheap connectivity to the developing world — the companies whose revenue is tied to advertising look to be out in front at this stage.

It should worry the pants off us all that this is the state we find ourselves in.

If corporations are indeed "institutional psychopaths" as Joel Bakan says, then one that forms at the nexus of technology and advertising is akin to being offered roses from an attractive psychopath, only to find out much too late that they are brandishing a flamethrower behind themselves.

The internet has allowed the technology and advertising company to exist, and it is important to remember that out of the four companies mentioned earlier, only Microsoft has managed to avoid being beholden to it, in spite of its leadership's desire to join the others. Without the connectivity that exists today, Facebook and Google simply wouldn't exist, and Apple's iTunes and iDevices cash cows would become simply an irritating music player, and expensive feature-phone or e-reader respectively.

Connectivity has given us the devices we rely on everyday, and its combination with advertising has allowed companies to track and correlate our movements, tastes, and opinions.

With all the properly correct anger at the NSA for its multitude of programs to track individuals' activities on the internet, it seems to be a different story when it comes to publicly-traded entities.

It's little wonder that the NSA is interested in tapping into the data warehouses that Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and Google have, given that between them, the companies are able to trace pretty much every site we visit, detail many of our instant messages, derive who are friends and associates are, trawl through our emails, and peer into our mobile device address books.

Yet rather than having to lower themselves to nefarious ways of the national security agency, the corporations are able to rely on users happily handing personal information over.

The furore, and subsequent lack of action from users, over Facebook's 2012 experiment to manipulate the emotions of some of its users should not be surprising in terms of what the social network did — determining how to keep users on a page is fundamental to the way business on the modern internet works — but it allowed for the regular user to gain a rare insight into how their experience on the internet is "curated" by large companies.

For over a decade, Google has offered personalised search to its users, and when the feature rolled out across Google in 2010, people were shocked and up in arms. And yet, here we are in 2014 with no memory of a great Google boycott of 2010, and the search giant continues to perform over 100 billion search queries a month, and completely dwarfs its competition.

It seems that no private intrusion is unforgivable enough to stop users remaining with a service, nor is the sheer scale and potential of a big data profile of a user enough to make them consider their online activities.

While the internet-native Facebook and Google are held up as a pillar of a dystopian machine-scanning advertising fest, the other runners to decide where the computing industry heads, do not fare that much better.

Despite running what must be one of the most self-defeating and ironic advertising campaigns of all time when it came up with the Scroogled advertisements, Microsoft tried and failed for a number of years to become an internet company. If Steve Ballmer's plans of the last decade had worked, everyone would be searching on Bing, advertisers would be flocking to Bing Ads, and we'd all be signing into sites across the internet with our Windows Live IDs.

But that's not how it played out, and instead of trying to chase down the Google behemoth, the folks at Redmond are lurching towards a devices and services strategy — or whatever it is called this week — that appears more Cupertino-like.

Although Microsoft boasts of not scanning emails for the purposes of targeting advertising — it still has to scan email for malware, phising, and spam detection — many of the principles underpining the attacks of its scroogled campaign can, and should, be equally applied using Microsoft-owned services.

The cookie section of Microsoft's online advertising privacy statement shows that while it may not be at levels of Facebook or Google, it is far from pristine when it comes to tracking internet users.

"We use cookies to compile your online behavior in order to better target the ads we display to you and to analyze the operation of our advertising services," it says. "We also use web beacons to better understand your browsing patterns and compile analytics. These may include third-party web beacons, which are prohibited from collecting your personal information. We also use identifiers passed to us by app developers that choose to use our advertising services."

It is hardly the actions of a corporation that has decided to protect privacy as a fundamential tenet of its offering.

Further down the road to putting privacy first, whether it is altuistic or not, is the final, and highest-valued, member of our quartet of contenders that will define the future of computing: Apple.

While it is similar to Microsoft in terms of failing to step up to the plate in recent times with a successful traditional internet-based service offering, Apple's success in selling hardware and taking technology mainstream have more than made up for its prior failures.

But whereas Apple may appear almost saint-like when compared with the sodden trio discussed previously, Apple offers a different proposition, a non-obvious one that will remain a lurking threat despite Apple's best-efforts. The security of its software.

As Apple adds more and more functionality to its operating systems, and its iOS devices especially, into repositories of the most personal information. When the features of iOS 8 are taken full advantage of, a personal iPhone will contain the full address book of a users, email messages, photos, fingerprint data, personal health data thanks to HealthKit, and control of the users' home with HomeKit. It's a honeypot of information and control that will be attacked by the black hats of the world time and time again — it's too tempting a target to not try.

Apple has been relatively successful in the security of iOS itself, but there is more than one way to get to a user's device as was shown in the recent Apple ID hack. As Apple likes to gloat, it has the most passionate and engaged consumers, and it likely that many will only be too willing to trust Cupertino to take care of their most precious data.

It's a dangerous game, and for the sake of its users, one that Apple needs to stay ahead of, but its customary silence when things go awry does not instill confidence. The first successful Health app attack, or Homekit hack will not be a pretty sight.

But however good or bad Apple does on its side of the ledger, there will always be those following in its wake, and history has shown that the followers take a while to catch up to what is offered out of Cupertino.

It could be that the worse thing Apple could do in this area is to be entirely successful in the pushing even more personal data onto mobile devices. If having apps upload address books to their own services felt like a violation of personal data, wait until an also-ran service suffers an attack that leaks data revealing when and where a family is located within their residence.

In the end, rather than judging who is going to lead the computing industry over the next decade, the question for consumers is fast becoming: "Who do I decide to be the repository of all my data?"

Which service provider is trustworthy enough to handle geolocation, home automation, email and instant message communications, and can create storage secure enough to store a fingerprint and health data?

The old adage of putting one's eggs all in one basket is particularly relevant in this case. The answer should always be to trust no-one, especially a publicly-listed company that will do and sell off who knows how much personal data and control should the company's fortunes ever turn sour.

It's a shame that this is rarely considered by most users, and personal information is too readily handed over to provide the latest integration with a smart band or acknowledged and then dismissed because everyone happens to be on one particular social network.

Federation of data would seem like a natural solution, but it cannot compare to the allure of an integrated player, and the convenience of a device "Just knowing what you want".

Hopefully the exchange is worth it.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener

Topics: Security, Apple, Emerging Tech, Google, Microsoft, Tech Industry, Social Enterprise


Chris started his journalistic adventure in 2006 as the Editor of Builder AU after originally joining CBS as a programmer. After a Canadian sojourn, he returned in 2011 as the Editor of TechRepublic Australia, and is now the Australian Editor of ZDNet.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


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  • Like the great quote says...

    "There's none as bent as a businessman"

    Although i must add my own,

    "There no place on earth as evil as Silicon Valley"
    • Except Redmond...

      • data preversion.

        I wonder if there is a reliable way to "pervert" the data we're feeding them that wouldn't involve visiting a bunch of sites we're not actually interested in and/or buying a bunch of stuff we don't really need or want...
        rocket ride
        • Just trying to be anon.

          I just change browser profiles like crazy to prevent them from identifying me. I use 4 browsers for different purposes on different virtual machines and using anon mode (whatever is called on browser). I also use vpns and IP proxies on some search. Tough, just wiping over the browser settings leaves only the IP address, at least they need subpoena to know who I am. If they can't like my profiles, it will appear as several users that are not related.
          • Just make up a fake one -

            Just because you enter a profile does not mean it has to be you? I don't give a rats- rump on what Google's policy says. I use Bogus information. let them track that.
      • Or

        The District of Columbia, USA.
        Jacob VanWagoner
        • Don't libel other people's home towns

          Most DC residents are not federal employees, and my experience is that the vast majority of career federal employees are as honest as the rest of us. I'm not so certain about the politicians and political appointees, but the buck on that stops with us voters.
          John L. Ries
          • The same goes...

            ...for the Silicon Valley and Redmond comments. Even if many of the executives are sociopathic, it doesn't mean their employees and others who happen to live in the area are.
            John L. Ries
          • John L. Ries: "Don't libel other people's home towns"

            Exactly. Many lobbyists reside in D.C. too.
            Rabid Howler Monkey
          • Most of them reside in the suburbs

            And many have their offices there as well.
            John L. Ries
      • And Cupertino...

        Follow the money.
      • While trying to be funny

        and it was just silly. They are so far behind Google in the world of privacy and data your asinine comment is ill-pointed.
  • What if it's not?

    "Hopefully the exchange is worth it."

    What if it's not?

    Will we have the backbone to take technology in the direction we want, rather than treating it as something outside of our control?
    • First, "we" have to understand the technology.

      For the average person, that is not possible.
      • Exactly This

        I've got a server in a colo. Files are consolidated between Bittorrent Sync and OwnCloud. Socialness, in theory, is handled by eXo (getting my friends to use it is another, nontechnical problem), and my accounting is handled by FusionInvoices (xtuple if I wanted to go for overkill). My personal data and media storage lives on a FreeNAS.

        I can do this kind of thing. Many people on ZDNet could do something similar. The average person is still confused by the notion of the file system, and doesn't exactly think all the way through "where their data actually lives".

        I'd love to see more of this kind of thing be commonplace. However, it's taken countless hours to make this happen, it costs a pretty penny for the rack space in the colo, and I have neither the simplicity nor the failover/redundancy levels that Google/Microsoft/Apple/Amazon provide.

  • Don't Want a Monopoly?

    Then make sure not to give all your business -- er, I mean data -- to any single company. Avoid getting walled in at all cost -- no matter how pretty that garden might look. Things will turn ugly once they get you.

    I use MS Win 7 OS. I use Google browser (with ad and cookie blockers). My mobile devices runs on Android. My cloud storage is Mega. My photos are shared within Yahoo. And no 'personalized' or 'locationized' tracking or searches. Thank you.
  • Seems to be the opposite

    It seems to be the opposite where companies are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet with an advertising business model. Advertising creates nothing and only is used to sell other products, so it can only be so big compared to GDP due to price pressure on those products. We'll likely see far more subscription based services where the service is the product and fewer advertising based services where the service is just to draw viewers.
    Buster Friendly
  • An Era of Lazy Humanoids

    Dear Chris Duckett.

    Your observations are very noteworthy. But the ploy that birth the machineries that are about to manifest all your observations started precisely thirteen years ago. I won't give details.

    This gave rise to Microsoft dotNet Framework and eventually the Cloud. The question begging for answer is why would anyone want to store his/her business data on a remote server and not on his/her PC?

    Well, the Cloud is set and the rain will soon begin. I've evolved techniques to config my devices to give off only those data I approve. So, we might as well prepare for a beautiful wet era.
  • Spider Oak cloud is the obvious answer to data privacy protection

    Spider Oak cannot determine who's data belongs to who. It's encryption is epic as well. They don't have any way to unencrypt your data which is the acid test for privacy.

    How do they do this!

    The fact is if you forget your password they can't even tell you what it is. It's not stored on their servers. It's on your machine only.

    The Spider Oak cloud technology is absolutely the answer to keeping your data totally protected and private.

    I've been a user for a while and am totally 100% happy with it.
    • Spider Oak

      Yes, but with your files completely secure from their view, they have your name, address, e-mail, credit card, the frequency with which you use cloud services, the sizes of files you transfer, which days and hours of the week you utilize their services most, and etc., none of which they would have should your files be on local storage.