The Dangers of Tech that Tracks Everything We Do

Shoshana Wodinsky


Paris Marx is joined by Shoshana Wodinsky to discuss how the digital infrastructure that companies have built out over the past couple decades to track everything we do in order to serve us ads places us at risk, and how that’s come into focus since the overturning of abortion rights in Roe v Wade in the United States.


Shoshana Wodinsky is a privacy reporter at Gizmodo. Follow Shoshana on Twitter at @swodinsky.

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Paris Marx: Shoshana, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us!

Shoshana Wodinsky: Hey, thanks for having me back!

PM: I’m always excited to chat. You’re always doing this fantastic work on the data that these companies are recording on us.

SW: I wish I was here under less dire circumstances.

PM: I wish we could just like talk about how shitty Google and Facebook and Amazon are. But unfortunately, we have bigger fish to fry today.

SW: I was talking to a privacy academic for a story recently, and I was like: Everything kind of sucks right now, but at least it’s job security. And he was just kind of quiet. And I was like: it’s job security — you get it? You’ve got to find the laughs where you can [laughs].

PM: Absolutely, I completely agree, unfortunately. We don’t have a great topic today.

SW: It is a great topic! It’s rich!

PM: That’s true. It’s a great topic, but it’s just terrible that it has to be a topic. That’s the problem.

SW: I got into this business, I think I mentioned during the last time I was on there, I got into journalism to be a wonky business reporter and now people are coming to me like: You are the person that knows all the data that cops are going to get? And I’m like: What? No, I like deliberately don’t report on law forcement. That’s a world that I don’t know. And people are like: NNo, no, no law enforcement and private corporations are no one of the same. And they always were.’ And I was like: Oh, I guess this is how things are now. But it’s insane to me, how the lines between what public officials know about us and what private corporations know about us is becoming so blurred. I started reporting in like, 2019. So I’m still technically a baby, but in that time, since Cambridge Analytica, they’ve literally become one in the same. Cops and data brokers, they’re just buddy buddies. Now, it’s great.

PM: Great is one way to put it. But it’s wild that you say you’ve only been reporting since 2019. Because I feel like you’ve been doing such great work. So great job learning so quickly.

SW: No, part it is — because you’ve read my stuff, you know this — the stuff that I cover is kind of dense. So I can cover basically the bare minimum or leave holes and stuff. And people will be like: Wow, this is so in depth. And I’m like: Oh, you have no idea.

PM: It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

SW: The stuff I cover is always like an iceberg. Personally, I don’t know about you. I love watching like this iceberg videos on YouTube. They’re so great.

PM: I like the ones where they flip over, though.

SW: And people read 3000 words on the way cops get data from your phone. And they’re like: Oh, that’s it. This is fine. And I’m like: Sure. I was just having a discussion with somebody earlier today about this. I don’t know, if I should tell people how much deeper it goes, because it kind of imbues people, like it imbues me, personally, with a sense of hopelessness. And I’d rather people think that — it’s not even thinking it’s like you can do stuff to protect yourself. Sorry, I’m rambling now.

PM: No, that’s completely okay. I think it helps to start this kind of discussion with a bit of a light banter.

SW: Just a light banter about the erosion of all human rights.

PM: Yeah [laughs].

SW: Okay, well I get into arguments with people about this all the time. I’m of the mind that it’s better to be completely transparent with people about the data that’s collected on them and the failures of regulation to keep it all contained. But being transparent means people realize there isn’t that much they can realistically do unless go full Ted Kaczynski and live in a shack out in the woods. I know a lot of friends of mine are just like: You can’t tell people that. They need to think that there’s some hope here besides voting harder. But there kind of isn’t. So I’m curious where you fall on that?

PM: No, I think it’s a great question. And I think it’s one that even when we’re not dealing with specific kinds of personal privacy stuff that comes up all the time. Because on the one hand, what immediately came to my mind was thinking about climate change. For so long, we’ve been told: Change your lightbulbs; buy an electric car; this is how you do your part. But actually dealing with the problem requires these massive kind of structural changes that you can’t affect as an individual.

SW: I literally tell people that reporting on privacy is exactly like reporting on climate change, because it’s Apple saying: Oh, you can just block apps from tracking and it’s fine. the same way Coca-Cola is saying: Oh, you can just recycle our plastic bottles, and it’s fine. Meanwhile, Apple is building out this massive targeted ad network behind the scenes. And Coke — it’s Coca-Cola. I’m not familiar with the Coca-Cola emissions process, but I’m sure it’s not great. It’s just corporations love pushing responsibility onto the individual rather than changing what they do.

PM: Exactly, it fits with the whole neoliberal narrative we’ve had for several decades. That we leave things to the market —that it’s all about the individual and individual empowerment and blah, blah, blah, blah. It really doesn’t get to the root of these problems. But that works very well for these companies who benefit from these problems continuing, and making us believe that we just need to act as individuals to affect change. When actually we need the state to actually step up and wield its power to make these changes on our behalf to protect us and whatnot.

SW: What’s really funny is a few weeks ago, for some bizarre reason, I was invited to talk on a panel hosted by the posted by the IAB Tech Lab, which is the body that self regulates the way data brokering and ad targeting works online, because legislation clearly isn’t there. And I was talking to one of my other panelists behind the scenes, and I asked him, I was like: Hey, so what’s it going to take for y’all to treat consumers like their consumers, more or less. But he basically said: Oh, we’re not going to do anything until lawmakers step in. Why would we? This is our business and business is good? And I’m like: Fair enough. And then we had a very cordial panel together. I mean, at the end of the day, I’m a business reporter. I can’t gate a company for trying to drive shareholder value. That’s what they’re there for. But at the same time, it would be nice if they didn’t.

PM: I think it’s fascinating, because then that gets into the whole question about to what degree should these companies be the ones that are pushing to show that they’re for these like progressive causes, when really underlying them is a business model? That pushing those progressive causes just acts as, in many cases, a PR campaign in order to distract us from these like much deeper fundamental problems that are really driving the business?

SW: I mean being pro-privacy right now is a business tactic. It’s a selling point, more than anything.

PM: Look at Apple.

SW: Yes. Apple has always been like this. I read about this not that long ago. Do you remember the iCloud leak with Jennifer Lawrence? That was a little bit before my time. Because again, I’m baby. But since then, Apple has gone really on the offensive with all of its privacy messaging, they’re like: Okay, we won’t leak your datal it’s all good. And recently, very recently, they clamped down on the way ad targeting works on iOS, again, under the kind of veneer of being pro-privacy. And to a certain extent they are — companies like Facebook, Snapchat, and Pinterest had their market cap slashed, because targeted ads aren’t worth as much. The problem is, I think I mentioned this earlier, Apple is quietly building out its own ad targeting capabilities and they aren’t really talking about that publicly. You look into it and it sounds like you’re trading the devil, you know, for the devil you don’t. Google has also tried to do this, where they’re like: Oh, we will cut off access to third party cookies. And now we control all of that data. So that’s fine, right? Do you want a bunch of nameless third party marketers to have access to all of your data? Or do you want Google to have access to all of your data? You lose either way, so it’s really just like how much are you willing to compromise? At the end of the day, compromise isn’t privacy, but with a shiny enough ad campaign, it sure looks like it.

PM: Absolutely. And that’s what Apple has done so effectively, for the past few years, especially to make consumers feel that if you want to protect your privacy, you need to buy the Apple product. I think it’s fair to say it’s a bit more PR as you’ve been saying, then is actually reflected in what’s happening.

SW: I hate to be such a Negative Nelly about this stuff because there are people inside Apple, and even inside companies like Facebook or Google that are trying to do the right thing. I’ve talked to them a lot, and some of them are coming up with really interesting proposals and ideas. The internet needs targeted ads to survive, at least right now unless we dismantle it all and start fresh. And there are people inside these massive companies that have the resources to try to do the right thing, and they are. But doing the right thing will never be as profitable as maintaining the status quo. So what do you think’s gonna happen?

PM: I completely get it. I think it makes total sense. I am going to pivot us in our conversation now, though.

SW: Back to Roe v. Wade…[laughs].

PM: Exactly. So just to set this up for people, Roe v. Wade, was the decision made by the US Supreme Court in 1973 that granted access to abortion services that made that a right for women or pregnant people in the United States. Then in April of this year, we saw that there was a leaked decision from the Supreme Court that wasn’t actually acted on at that point. But it suggested that this decision, Roe vs. Wade, the right to abortion in the United States, was going to be overturned. Then on June 24th 2022, that decision was finally made by the Supreme Court, which basically means that the decision about who gets to have a right to abortion in the United States will be left to the states. That means that some states will continue to grant that right, that access, while other states will criminalize it and make sure that women are pregnant people can’t avail of those services. There has been a lot of discussion and debate around this topic since it came out.

Obviously, it’s shocking to see this kind of rollback of rights, especially after they’ve been enshrined in the United States for such a long time. And, especially, when a majority of people in the United States support the right to abortion. But it’s this kind of small, very well-organized, group of conservatives that have acted to ensure that this gets rolled back, regardless of what the majority opinion is, on this topic. One of the main points of discussion, particularly when we’re thinking about technology around abortion, and what kind of technologies that you should be using, and still feel safe to be using are these apps where people can track their periods, I believe. There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether people should delete those apps now, because this decision has been made. And because certain groups and authorities will be looking for data on people who might be getting pregnant, and might be looking at those apps as a source of data to identify whether people might be going to get abortions. But then I’ve also seen people saying that it’s not as clear cut that you don’t necessarily have to delete these apps. I wonder what your view is on that point around these apps and what the safety is around them now, since this decision has been made?

SW: First off, every app is different. Without going into the code and seeing all the third parties that are there. It’s really tough to say: This app is good. And this app isn’t. I mean, it goes back to letting people have the sort of simile that they’re doing something, right. I hate to say: You have no sense of agency in this. But, I was talking to an actual out and out data broker, a source of mine, earlier this week. I was just like: what, what do you think about the whole, like, deleting data thing, and he laughed. He was like: It’s like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic, is how we put it. Because he was like: if cops want that data, they’re going to get it. But I will say, I think there’s been a lot of great stuff written; I mean, I’m working on a story about apps that will come out eventually. But there has been a lot of great reporting on personal responsibility, when it comes to: Should we delete these apps? Should these companies protect us? And I know that some do. I think there’s a few companies, that are based out of the EU where privacy protections are a little bit stronger.

So if you’re going to download an app, make sure they’re based out of there; though, when we talk about data and when we talk about data that discloses that you’re pregnant or that you’re looking for an abortion specifically, it’s not just the last time you menstrated, it is: Did you buy a pregnancy test? Did you walk by an abortion clinic? Are you visiting a lot of like pregnancy forums lately? Are you buying maternity wear.? It’s retail data, its location data. It’s psychographic. It’s data from insurance companies. It’s literally everything because brokers start collecting data on you from the time you’re born until you die, because it’s profitable. So I think that when people are talking about like: Oh, I don’t want the cops to know that I’m pregnant. I know that cops can bypass the Fourth Amendment — they don’t need a warrant to buy commercial data. So they can just do whatever they want there. People had asked, since this decision came in, I’ve been getting texts and DMs. Countless people are just like: How do I keep that from happening? I’m like: Yeah, you can delete the apps, but you need to kind of think like a sociopath. Because that’s how I always report my stories. I’m thinking: Okay, I’m a marketer. I want to target pregnant people online, where do they hang out? How do they act? What are they doing?

Because when you start thinking about that, you start thinking about all the little breadcrumbs that add up to the image of a pregnant person. Suddenly, it’s like: Oh, I bought Plan B from CVS two weeks ago and MasterCard shares data with brokers. I use MasterCard, and even if MasterCard didn’t, CVS has an ad network, and they share that data. Or if you use a coupon, coupon companies can share that data. It’s so incestuous. Because the market for data is hundreds of billion dollars deep, and everybody wants a slice of that pie. So it really becomes: Okay, buy everything in cash, don’t take your phone with you when you go to a CVS. If they ask you to sign up for the rewards program, don’t sign up for their rewards program. But even that, we’re talking about iceberg, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And at the end of the day, this is a critique that I often get that I don’t think is unwarranted. It’s just like: You’re telling people to take so many steps that at the end of the day, they’re just going to feel too hopeless. They’re going to be like: Well, I guess the cops are goinng to know either way. That’s kind of how I feel right now, so I feel like saying anything else is being disingenuous.

PM: I think it definitely gets back to the question that you asked me earlier — how much detail you tell people in terms of what is actually going on. And the feeling of whether individual action is going to make much sense, because as your reporting has shown — us over the past few years — and certainly there are other reporters working on this stuff, as well. Just the way that these ad networks and these tracking functions have been built out, because it’s so profitable for these companies to put together these profiles on us that are generated with data from so many different sources, that we found ourselves in this position where whatever we do, it’s not just going on Facebook, or going on Google to have data produced about us that these companies can see, or visiting a few different websites that might have like a cookie from Facebook, or Google. There was a reporting, I believe it was last week, on how Planned Parenthood had a Facebook cookie or something. So it was sending data to Facebook. But we know, those aspects of it, right. But I feel like a lot of people don’t realize then that all of these shops, all of these credit cards, all these telecom companies, all of these other just totally random companies that you’re interacting with are collecting all this data on you too, and are selling this to people to put these profiles together on you. That gets much harder to avoid because as you’re saying, it’s hard to just exist, going around buying cash and not having a phone and not being pinged by these different collection points or what have you.

SW: They’re called touch points, actually [laughs].

PM: Sorry, sorry.

SW: Get it right. Half of the issue here is that so much of the business of data, which is what I say I report on. So much of it is just lingo for basic shit. If people knew how these companies talk about average, everyday humans, I think they would lose their mind. You see this with a crisis pregnancy centers, which is something that even before all of this, when I first started reporting on this stuff years ago, I was fascinated by them. Because there was this case out of I think it was Boston, where you had this crisis center that was deliberately targeting ads at people inside of a Planned Parenthood. The local AG got involved and he was like: Can’t do that anymore, like what the hell. He started looking into it. Years later, relatively recently, they settled they gave the ad company basically a nothing fine. And there’s nothing stopping you from doing this. But come on. It’s really shitty. And it’s funny because I’m kind of psychotic. I love looking at the communications that crisis centers put out, like how they talk to each other, because you have to kind of know your enemy.

PM: Maybe we should be clear, just for people who wouldn’t know, what are one of these crisis centers? It’s not a pro-abortion place, right?

SW: It’s not pro-abortion. And I know a lot of them disguise themselves as abortion clinics, but they’re basically there to dissuade people from being pro choice. They might pressure young women or young pregnant people into adoptiob, or keeping the child, or something like that. But the point is to ask people: Hey, don’t get rid of this baby, this baby is a gift from God, yada, yada, yada. They’re usually Christian. So these crisis centers, one of them literally said: Geofencing, which is the terminology for targeting within a specific area, is perfectly legal. It’s done everywhere in the ad tech industry. So if what we’re doing is illegal than the industry is illegal. And I’m like: This was coming from a goddamn Christian marketing firm that was targeting pregnant women, and they’re like: If this is illegal, then the industry is illegal. And I’m like: You’re not wrong, but it’s weird to see you say that.

PM: I guess it’s one way to try to stop enforcement. If you’re gonna do something to us, you got to deal with this whole bigger problem. So leave us alone, right?

SW: They’re not wrong. I hate to come out swinging for these Christian micro targeting clinics, but they’re not doing anything different than, say, a political marketing firm targeting people with ads for a particular candidate, or Clorox targeting you with ads for wet wipes. It’s all the same.

PM: That story you were talking about of these groups geotargeting abortion centers, or Planned Parenthood’s, or places where people would go to get abortion services, or even just get, reproductive health services, and bombarding them with abortion ads. In the story, you said that they could get it for weeks afterward just because they had been in that zone, and so they would just be flooded with these ads that are anti abortion that say you should seek adoption, instead of abortion, all these sorts of things. I feel like it’s just something that people aren’t really aware of happens or can happen or can be done. But I don’t know, it was just really shocking to me to read that they could do something like this.

SW: I mean, it’s not even weeks, they can target with that forever, because the way that it works is that your mobile device that’s in your pocket right now kind of gives off kind of a little signal in one of a few ways. And that’s how, once you step into the perimeter of an abortion clinic, you kind of step over a tripwire. And then that data gets sent to these companies that are working with like these anti-abortion firms. Even that is a very oversimplified explanation. But you can change your mobile device ID, your MAID is what they’re called. You can change them on iOS and Android. You can look up guides for how to do that. But if you don’t, and a lot of people don’t, because why would you? It’s kind of a pain in the ass. These companies could just keep targeting you with whatever they want. Or if they wanted to, they could give that data to law enforcement, because some states kind of have a bounty on sort of the state at now and you can get a good pat on the head from cops if you disclose which doctors are which women are engaging in the sinful, sinful act of abortion.

PM: And we know that there are some people out there who really love a nice pat on the head from the cops and would be happy to do it.

SW: I mean, who doesn’t love a nice pat on the head from your local police officer? Honestly, when I was talking to this broker earlier this week, he was saying like: I’m not worried about people like us.; I’m not worried about marketing firms or anything; I’m worried about these goddamn bounty hunters. Because once they, I hate to say it, once they learn how easy it is to get data, and how unregulated the space is, there’s really nothing stopping them.

PM: You wrote about how in one story you mentioned the case of the geotargeting of the ads, but you also mentioned how people who had just donated to Planned Parenthood and pro choice organizations had their addresses and stuff shared online. And we can see more and more recently if we see the kind of the Libs of Tik Tok phenomenon and what is going on with these groups and these really prominent people online sharing the addresses and locations of libraries holding drag events and shit like that, because they hate gay people now, there’s so many opportunities for people to find this information on people, and then to share it with people who will take violence against them online? I don’t know. It just seems really scary.

SW: It seems like the internet was a mistake.

PM: Yeah, definitely [laughs].

SW: I was born in the 90s, so I don’t know.

PM: Me too!

SW: 90s kids! What up! I don’t know if something like this could have been, I mean, there were yellow pages. But because it’s so profitable. And because everything we do is kind of mediated by technology now. I saw some people writing this opinion. And I agree that our rights for people like me, are now rolled back farther than what my mom had? Well, she was Canadian, but you get the picture. But it’s kind of worse, because we have this digital dragnet that we didn’t have in the 50s, that makes shopping online convenient, makes it real convenient. I do love buying shoes. But it kills me that we were born into a world where technological convenience was kind of promised to us without strings attached. And then suddenly, lo and behold, look at all these strings. And these companies will tell you, as they often tell me: You consented to this by owning technology. And I’m like: We don’t have a choice. What do you expect us to do?

PM: I think it’s such a good point, though. Because as you have been describing all these things, that has kind of been the thought that has been at the back of my mind Just how this whole infrastructure has been created over such a large period of time. And how, once again, getting back to your earlier point, it’s not really something that us as individuals can stop. It is something that the State needs to step in and take action against. But they have been unwilling to do that, because the approach to technology has largely been one of: deregulate, let them do what they want; this is the future; this is progress, and ignoring all of these downsides that are increasingly becoming apparent to us in this situation

SW: Ad tech is like a $400 billion market — there’s close to 10,000 companies profiting off of this in the US. And that number is exponentially growing every year. Do you want to be the one to shut down a small business that’s contributing to the economy? I don’t know. You’ll see that with companies like Facebook, and they will often use small businesses as kind of a human shield. We saw this with the Apple Updates where when Apple changes its privacy policies and Faceebook’s marketcap kind of went ‘meh,’ small businesses were the ones that disproportionately were affected, because they use this platform for marketing their services. And Facebook will often say: Oh, small businesses depend on us to survive. And I’m like: But they don’t really want to. This is the power of monopoly in the 21st century. And then they’ll say: Well, why didn’t anybody else, like another entrant, come in? And I’m like: Because you were first. It’s not that you were good — you were just first. You can say this about Google, and you just say this about Amazon; you say this about anything. It’s why, even though there’s close to 10,000 ad tech companies, two thirds of the money is controlled by three companies: Facebook, well, Meta, I guess is what they’re called now, Google or Alphabet and Amazon. And that number is also exponentially growing. So, you have this booming sector with hundreds of billions of dollars. But everyone is trying to play catch up to these three massive data hoovering giants. And in order to compete, these small firms are going to need to collect data that those large companies can’t. So people in this space will often tell me that it’s kind of a race to the bottom and I totally agree, because it’s just collecting more and more and more data and making more and more and more money and until what? What’s the end state there?

PM: Yeah, it doesn’t sound like a good end state.

SW: It sounds profitable.

PM: Yeah.

SW: If the end state is being the one with the largest pile of gold; being Scrooge McDuck in the intro to “DuckTales,” that was “DuckTales”, right?

PM: Yes, I believe so. I loved Scrooge McDuck as a kid and that show.

SW: Can I tell you? It’s like nothing, honestly and this is going to sound terrible, I was more of a centrist when I first got into reporting and then being in this space transformed me into a full-blooded anarchist. I’m like: How can you be anything else? I’m like: This is the free market at work and it’s making a lot of money. It’s keeping the free internet running. But at what cost?

PM: We’re gonna have to cut that out for all the right wingers who are going to come on and say, Oh, look evidence of the press’s left-wing bias.

SW: It’s not even the left-wing. Listen, I’m a business reporter — I love capital! In fact, I think more so than other privacy reporters privacy/business reporters, I am more of a centrist because I will say, if you lump on more privacy regulations, small businesses around the country are going to suffer. I will say that outright because it’s true. And then people will say: Oh, well, you’re anti privacy. And I’m like: No, I’m anti-mom and pop stores being forced to close. At this conference, I was a panelist. I was talking to people in the crowd, because it’s been a pandemic for a few years, I miss hobnobbing with people in the data industry, I want to see their feelings. And a lot of them, one of them told me that he was having a ‘come to Jesus’ moment lately, because this was not long after the Roe v. Wade, stuff leaked. And what he said was: Eventually, people are going to realize you have to pick one. There are a lot of proposals coming out that are like: We can save small businesses and local newspapers, and keep people’s privacy afloat. But unless we get buy in from every side, I don’t see how that’s going to happen. So instead, we have kind of this impossible choice where you can have privacy for individuals, or you can have the economy, keep being the economy, but you can’t have both I feel like part of the reason that we’re seeing stalling on federal privacy legislation, for so long, is because lawmakers realize that and they don’t want to be the one to pull that trigger and I don’t blame them.

PM: I would say I think those things are still important to recognize. Obviously, I’d be more of a raging lefty.

SW: You — a lefty? No!

PM: I still think it’s important to understand the impacts of legislation and to see what the goal is that we actually have are with legislation and with regulation and the things that we want to do.

SW: Here’s a very concrete example that I just thought of: when GDPR passed, we’re talking about how great European privacy legislation is. GDPR passed close to 1000 newspapers, mostly small local newspapers, pulled out of the EU entirely, because it was too costly to keep up with local laws, then it would be to just like: Okay, I guess we’re just not going to be read by people in Europe.

PM: Even the LA Times for a time! If you’re in Europe, you couldn’t access the LA Times because they hadn’t adapted to the GDPR yet.

SW: It’s expensive to go through that rigmarole and you’re not making as much money off of consumers. So it’s not worth it. I’m pretty sure you still can’t get Newsweek if you’re in the UK. But you think about something like that and people are like: Oh, local news is shuttering. How do we save local news? And the same people will say: Oh, we need like stronger privacy legislation. And I’m like: I agree with both of those things. But do you have an idea for how we can keep up? A big issue there is that because the space is so huge, again, closer to 10,000 companies in the US, because the space is so huge and because it’s so opaque. A lot of the money that’s supposed to go to small publisher, supposed to go to regular ass news outlets ends up going to those middlemen instead. They pocket it, they double it. Ad fraud is a thing, it’s a well-known issue.

But unless we fight for transparency, as well as privacy, we’re just going to keep perpetuating the same issues which is why I always bristle whenever I call myself a privacy reporter even though that’s technically what I am because people get all my case all the time, not unrightfully, so that a lot of my stances are actually anti-privacy because I’m just like: You can add ad blockers, but you’re wondering local papers are covered with terrible ads, it’s because of your ad blockers. You’re cutting off revenue for them specifically. And also that ad blocking your downloading is also true backing you and selling your data behind the scenes. That’s how ad blockers make money. Don’t you understand this? No, kidding. I don’t actually say that. But I’ll tell people: Hey, the ad blocker you downloaded, yeah, it makes the internet more bearable. But because this is a race to the bottom, it’s going to keep getting worse around you, because these sites have to make money somehow.

PM: It’s an individualized solution to a collective problem. And having some people opt out makes it worse for the people who can’t or don’t know how to or what not. I think that’s the key piece. Just for example, I saw a story the other day about how there’s some Android phones, now, this is already common in in other parts of the world, but in the US that are going to have ads on the lockscreen for lower income people, I guess to make phones more affordable. If you have the money, you can opt out of this. But if not, then you also get ads on your on your lockscreen along with everything else.

SW: This is what you hear all the time when the product is free or low price: you’re the product. In fact, that’s kind of true, but it’s kind of not. Because when you pay for something, you are also the product. I think I mentioned this before, credit card companies, retailers, retail pharmacies, retail-anything are also compiling your data and pawning it off. If you’re high-income, people want to target you with ads, because you’re going to buy their product. It’s really inescapable. Because when you’re online, free internet is supported by ads. Sucks to say, but it’s true. And those ads are going to have to be targeted to you somehow. So even if it’s not on your phone, even if it’s not via that free app that you download, you’re being tracked, and it’s not your fault. It’s nobody’s fault. I mean, it’s capitalism’s fault. But do you have any ideas for how we should completely rebuild the internet?

PM: Well, if people do want to know, they can go back and listen to my conversation with Ben Tarnoff a few weeks ago, where we talk about those sorts of questions. But I do have some other questions on this that I want to get to before we wrap up our conversation. I think one of the responses that’s important to get to is the responses of the tech companies themselves. And I feel even beyond tech, we saw a lot of companies saying: We are going to pay for our employees in some of these states to be able to travel to other states to be able to access abortion services. But then had little to say about the culpability that they have in collecting this data in, in spreading this data, I guess, in the case of companies like Facebook, in spreading kind of anti-abortion messaging, or the fact that many of these companies donate to a lot of these politicians that have been pushing against abortion rights for a long time. So what do you make of the response to these companies in the way that they have sort of framed it to get some positive press in providing this benefit for employees, even as they are contributing to the problem?

SW: I think it was Google recently said that they were going to delete location data about people who had recently visited abortion clinics, but they didn’t really say anything about search, which is Google’s bread and butter, and which is how law enforcement in the past have tied people seeking reproductive care to a particular account, it was via search. It kind of goes back to that point where people leave so many digital breadcrumbs behind. And it’s very easy for a company to say: Look at us, we are deleting this kind of data, or we’re not going to give this kind of data to law enforcement or that or that or that. And then you have to go back and ask: What about all of the data that you’re collecting on all of us every second of every day? And when you talk about apps in particular, the data isn’t just going to the app itself, it’s going to the third parties that they use to monetize. When there was that big story about location data from Grindr being used to out a Catholic priest, which was horrifying. But that wasn’t Grindr’s fault, but not on paper, because it was via a marketing partner that they were using. And people will go to Grindr and be like: Do you respond to subpoenas? And they can say yes or no, but those marketing partners are getting off scot free. It’s a weird obscure marketing compand, why would you talk to them? Well, this is a reason to talk to them. Get to know your local data broker, because they know that they’re not going to face as much scrutiny and they are fully willing to work with law enforcement, which is why we see it all the time.

PM: I think it’s a really good point. And I would just say, on this point, I think that these tech companies need to be treated with a little more —

SW: — Less kid gloves?

PM: Exactly what I was trying to look for the words to say — just because of the way that so many of these pledges were reported. And it was like: Okay, but can you really mention the bigger picture of this where a lot of these tech companies are donating to candidates who are against abortion rights and will continue to do so. And that seems like a bigger story here.

SW: I have to be frank with you, I would read those headlines and I wouldn’t even click on the story, because I’m just like: I know that this is going to make me mad. But of course, they’re not going to mention this or that company because it’s a messier narrative. I feel like a lot of what this conversation has been about is just narratives that are supposed to be clear cut, privacy, good abortions, good. Facebook, bad, yada, yada, yada. And usually that’s the case. But if you dig down, it’s like: Yes, but no, I mean, yes, Facebook is terrible there, I want them to burn to the ground. But when we talk about something like data, or when we talk about something like privacy, or Tech in general. Before being a journalist, I was in the sciences, and I got very into objectively defining things. So when people asked: Is this app good for my privacy? I’m like: What does privacy mean? Because every single person is going to tell you something different. And I feel like what somebody like you wants out of these sorts of stories might be different than what companies are willing to give up or what reporters are willing to give up. Narratives are messy is what I’m trying to say.

PM: Absolutely, I totally get it. And I have one final question on the abortion question and what is happening here? And I feel like I already know the answer. But I feel I have to ask the question. Obviously, the Supreme Court has rolled back the national right to abortion in the United States, some states will still have some degree of abortion access and rights to that other states will not have it at all. It’ll be criminalized, they’ll be trying to track people down, who’ve even sought abortion services. In the United States, the Democrats say that they support abortion rights; but their response seems to have been to tell people to vote in November, rather than actually proposing doing anything concrete to ensure the right to abortion remains in the states where it’s trying to be criminalized. Is there much chance that they do anything to rectify this, do you think? Or try to protect these rights, or try to stop these companies from selling people’s abortion data?

SW: What? No, they’re not going to stop these companies because modern day voting depends on better data collection and data sharing to a certain degree. That’s why Cambridge Analytica happened. They’re definitely not going to step in to stop these companies. That’s the free market at work, baby. Whether they’re going to do anything about this at all, I mean, it would be nice, but they’ve kind of been sitting on their hands until now. So vote harder, I guess.

PM: They did have until April to actually prepare something. And it seems like they didn’t use that time at all.

SW: They could have done literally anything. I’m like: What are you doing instead? Like, come on, guys.

PM: It’s just terrible.

SW: Hey, I mean you you invited me on! I never said this conversation was going to be pleasant.

PM: It was informative.

SW: I promise, when you read my stuff, you’ll leave more educated but not happier.

PM: This has been a fantastic conversation. I want to wrap it up, but I was gonna ask you a bit more about your role at Gizmodo. Beyond looking into what’s happening with abortion data and everything going on with this since the decision recently; longer term, you have been looking at the Facebook papers, these documents that were released by Francis Haugen last year. Obviously, you and your team at Gizmodo have been digging through that and you’ve produced some really fantastic reports so far, giving us some insight into what goes on at Facebook, behind the scenes, what the teams have been saying internally and all these sorts of things. And I guess I wanted to kind of wrap up our conversation with this question. We’ve been talking about how data is so important to all of these things, how there’s so much data being collected on us, but also how Facebook plays an important role in so many aspects of this story, and the wider story on data, the increasing emboldening of the right in the United States and globally. In some of your stories that you’ve published so far, you talked about or you reinforced this reporting that we’ve already had about how Facebook has been influenced by this desire not to make conservative groups and conservative politicians angry by taking actions around its newsfeed and other features on the website that would reduce the spread that these right wing stories get — even when the teams find that it’s really getting a disproportionate amount of attention on the platform.

And also, that Facebook had this initiative where they were supposed to claim that they were going to push back on climate denial posts and things that were posted on that. And that was basically ineffective, and they have served to spread all of this climate denial information. And so it’s a broad question. But I guess, thinking about what we’re seeing with the rise of the right in the United States and beyond, and how they’re all these terrible issues around abortion rights, trying to stop us from addressing climate change, we saw recently that the Supreme Court had a decision that restricted the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to try to deal with carbon emissions in the United States. What do you make of Facebook’s role in this whole problem?

SW: Social media is just media. It does play a very significant role in shaping people’s opinions about everything in the world. I feel like there’s always those Pew studies where they’re like: More people get their news from Facebook, But that’s fine if Facebook was better about moderating what’s on its platform. As you might know, they’re not great. What the papers have really taught me — and we’ve only put out like a fraction of them. There was about 1300 documents in there, 10s of 1000s of pages, I have read all of them and it broke my brain. What I learned is content moderation is hard. It’s real hard. And when we talk about what content is, you mentioned the climate denialism stuff that was in the last batch of papers that we dropped, there were about 20. There were issues where Facebook would be like: Oh, we’ve caught climate denialism in posts, but it turns out algorithms don’t actually work in Facebook wots. They don’t work in video. We don’t know what’s there. Employees will be like: This seems like an issue; we should probably fix this. And then they have to go up the chain of command, because it’s such a huge company, and then that goes on the back burner.

Meanwhile, you have countless people being exposed to this content. And it’s so easy to fix. It’s literally like: Oh, well just add videos to review queue, it’s fine. But there’s so much internal bureaucracy with every content moderation decision, and you wouldn’t think that there is, but we recently discovered those stories about people trying to post about selling or the ability to sell abortion pills on Facebook. And they were like: Oh, my accounts being shadow banned, these posts were being taken out; what the hell’s going on? I have a hunch — turns out my hunch was correct — that accounts that are older, your regular Facebook account that you’ve had since high school, if you post about that, the post likely won’t get flagged. But if you’re using like a burner, like a lot of people are right now, it is going to get flagged.

On paper, Facebook says its’ content moderation decisions are airtight, they are invaluable — if you post about say XYZ you’re gonna be flagged. But then why are new accounts — like burners — being treated differently than the account I’ve had since high school? What’s going on there? And we reached out to Facebook, and they were like: We don’t talk about that. Obviously, times are always going to be dire, but in light of the Roe decision where the rubber meets the road, you need to be transparent about how you moderate stuff. The fact is, the company obviously says: We can’t be completely transparent about it because then bad actors will have to use the system which is why with our with our papers process we have like a whole academic team that’s helping us review things to make sure that bad actors won’t take advantage of what we’re releasing. But come on, guys! You can say these accounts are treated differently from those accounts and why. It’s been a rough few weeks. So sorry, if I’m breaking down right now.

PM: No, my God, not at all. No need to apologize. I think that this conversation has been so informative. Certainly, as you say, the more educated you might feel like: Shit, everything sucks.

SW: Listen, do you wanna do you want to live in the matrix or not?

PM: I think people need to know these things. And that’s the whole point. The podcast is to have these conversations where we get into the dark side of technology that we should be paying more attention to and that your reporting kind of wakes us up to all the time. So I really appreciate you taking the time to come back on the show, Shoshana, to talk us through all of this. Thanks so much!

SW: Of course, thanks for having me on again!