The Web is Watching You

Ads that follow you around the web so that bit of online window shopping on your favourite site then stalks you from site to site. Facebook knowing you’re pregnant before you even realise it. Google ads popping up that seem to know what you’re thinking about. The government connected to a mass internet surveillance apparatus running out of the US and plugged into almost the entire web, hoovering up every bit of digital data on us whether we’re criminals, suspected terrorists or just the general public.

It’s hard not to feel like the best ideas of the internet have been corrupted by government surveillance and businesses and social platforms stalking us at every time trying to squeeze every last piece of personal information about us in the name of ‘personalisation’ or ‘marketing’.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not just sick of it the invasion, I’m deeply concerned about how the notion of privacy is so diminished when it comes to being online. Some Notes From A Broad in a former journalist job wrote a lot about privacy, from cookies to Facebook, and security such as the Australian metadata retention laws and government internet filters and has had a growing sense of alarm on the issue.

So with a keen interest in the topic, last week in Sydney The Broad attended a fascinating panel at the Antidote festival on ‘dark data’ with Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov and Chris Wylie, the data scientist turned whistleblower who revealed how Cambridge Analytica was harvesting Facebook data to target groups of people and influence their views.

internet surveillance
Dark Data panel at the Antidote festival

Andrei Soldatov is co-founder and editor of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of the Russian secret services’ activities, along with fellow journalist Irina Borogan have updated Red Web on the Kremlin’s online surveillance and the 2016 hacking operation that interfered with the US presidential election.

Moderated by Guardian Australia Editor, Lenore Taylor, Soldatov and Wylie discussed how data is being used to influence elections and how our privacy is invaded online. They discussed our relationship to technology, which has insinuated itself into every aspect of our lives without the usual safety mechanisms we expect when engaging with other life alerting products and services like planes, cars and so on.

Wylie, who now works for an ethical AI outfit, explained in detail how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to target users with material that would appeal to their political and social views based on their profiles. It was about trying to “push people down a line of thinking” based on propaganda, untruths and so on.

Soldatov explained how technology is used to suppress dissent in the former Soviet Union, but is also a tool that assists journalists and activists to share their work exposing the state control and surveillance. Soldatov said that Putin, through the KGB, came to the view that the Soviet Union collapsed because of the spread of information and that its engineers were highly trained in engineering but lacked ethical standards. Soldatov also speculated that whistleblower Edward Snowden has to some extent been manipulated by the Russian against the US and that the hacking of the US Democrat email servers, and the publishing of emails through Wikileaks, was Russian payback to the US and Hilary Clinton for the Panama Papers among other things.

How will things change?

Wylie argued that the tech sector should be regulated for safety like many other parts of our lives. He also argued that we are “still stuck in the language of Silicon Valley” which talks about technology as services, whereas we need to see it as “architecture” that needs to be regulated for public safety and security with a precautionary principle tested in the beginning where users have statutory rights that can’t be extinguished by forcing people to accept terms and conditions.

Wylie also talked about how we’re fast approaching a time when we’re living in environments where our internet-connected devices, from speakers to entire rooms, the Internet of Things (IoT) will do our thinking for us and we need to come to terms with the implications of this.

Soldatov said that after the Snowden revelations, Putin came up with the idea of having the social media platforms like Facebook have their platforms in Russia under the pretext of protecting citizens’ data. However, the tech platforms have resisted after a campaign to stop this because the it would give free access to the Russian security services under the guise of securing people’s accounts from US mass surveillance.

It was a fascinating and disturbing discussion, really just the tip of the iceberg, on the implications of the mass intrusion technology into our lives, the problems of mass surveillance and the threats to democracy from diminished privacy and the absence of user rights and the thirst for our data from all sides.

Keen to follow this issue?

If all that’s got you worried or just interested to dig a little deeper, I’ve got a slew of books and docos and more on these issues.

The Red Web: The Kremlin’s War on the Internet
by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan

the red web

The Red Web is a groundbreaking history of the Kremlin’s massive online-surveillance state that exposes just how easily the internet can become the means for repression, control, and geopolitical warfare.

In this updated edition, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan offer a perspective from Moscow with new and previously unreported details of the 2016 hacking operation, telling the story of how Russia came to embrace the disruptive potential of the web and interfere with democracy around the world.

Netflix doco The Great Hack looks at the Cambridge Analytica scandal in particular and the dark side of social media platforms.


Carole Cadwalladr 2019 TED Talk
Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr returned to her native Wales and examined how Facebook influenced the Brexit vote and was astonished and alarmed to discover a barrage of misleading Facebook ads targeted vulnerable Brexit swing voters.

Carole Cadwalladr’s GoFundMe campaign to support her investigation into data, disinformation and democracy.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power
by Shoshana Zuboff

internet surveillance and capitalismSociety is at a turning point. The heady optimism that accompanied the advent of the Internet has gone, replaced with a deep unease as technology, capitalism and an unequal society combine to create the perfect storm. Shoshana Zuboff shows that at this critical juncture we have a choice, the power to decide what kind of world we want to live in. We can choose whether to allow the power of technology to enrich the few and impoverish the many, or harness it for the wider distribution of capitalism’s social and economic benefits.

Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us About Digital Technology

future histories

by Lizzie O’Shea

In Future Histories, Lizzie O’Shea argues that we need to stop looking forward and start looking backwards. Weaving together histories of computing and social movements with modern theories of the mind, society, and self, O’Shea constructs a “usable past” that help us determine our digital future

Webtopia: a stocktake on how the web has changed our world

by Peter Lewis

In Webtopia, Peter Lewis draws from his own pre- and post-tech experience and conversations with entrepreneurs, politicians, pastors, parents, teachers and journalists to argue that technology itself is not the problem. We are. webtopia

If we can fix our relationship with technology, it will be easier to fix our relationships with each other in an increasingly fragmenting world.

2062: The World that AI Made
Toby Walsh

In 2062, Professor Toby Walsh, a world-leader in the field of artificial intelligence and one of 100 ‘rock stars’ of Australia’s digital revolution, considers the impact AI will have on work, war, politics, economics, everyday human life and, indeed, human death.

This is the story of how filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald met Edward Snowden in 2013 when he revealed the massive surveillance of Americans, the UK, Australia and the rest in the Five Eyes network through the web.

The Intercept
The Intercept is an award-winning, investigative news organisation with a focus on politics, war, surveillance, corruption, the environment, technology, criminal justice and the media. It was found by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar and Glenn Greenwald, investigative journalist, constitutional lawyer and writer.

The Atlantic

Article from The Atlantic on surveillance from the podcast Crazy/Genius


In Australia, the ABC took a deep dive into just what smartphones are up to when they’re spying on you and how to shield yourself through your browser from being tracked.

NPR Frontline podcast

How to Protect Yourself (and Your Data) Online

Julia Angwin, journalist and author of Dragnet Nation about her year spent researching privacy and surveillance, along with Hanni Fakhoury, senior attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation, discuss privacy.

Podcast: How to Protect Yourself (and Your Data) Online

Dragnet Nation: A quest for privacy, security and freedom in a world of relentless surveillance
by Julia Angwin

dragnet nation book about internet surveillance

In Dragnet Nation, award-winning investigative journalist Julia Angwin reports from the front lines of America’s surveillance economy, offering a revelatory and unsettling look at how the government, private companies, and even criminals use technology to indiscriminately sweep up vast amounts of our personal data.

Electronic Frontiers Australia is an independent digital rights group in Australia where you can find out more about move to protect user privacy.


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Rosalyn Page
Journalist, blogger and writer covering arts, culture, travel and digital lifestyle at www.rosalynpage.com and www.somenotesfromabroad.com.

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