Rebecca Ricks: Documenting corporate surveillance

Mozilla has been increasingly alarmed as Facebook has been involved in one privacy controversy after another. The news that Cambridge Analytica harvested data of Facebook users without their knowledge or consent is especially distressing, so much so that we’ve paused advertising on Facebook. But this week’s news is just the latest headline about what is really an ongoing issue of data privacy for everyday people. Continued research, pressure and vigilance is needed to help people understand the often complicated issues related to their data.

Mozilla works to educate people about digital surveillance, data collection and the implications to their private lives once data is collected, but there is always more to do. As a mission-driven not-for-profit, Mozilla also supports people who are helping build a more ​humane​ ​digital​ ​world — people like Rebecca Ricks, a Ford-Mozilla Fellow hosted at Human Rights Watch. Ricks is researching corporate governance around data collection and the new reality that corporate surveillance is something we all need to be smarter about.

Ricks’ curiosity about the topic dates back to her teenage years when internet chatrooms and forums were the place to connect with people who shared her interests. When Facebook came along, the crowds migrated to the new platform, and Ricks recalls setting up an account and being prompted to “like” pages, which she and other users did happily and without question as badges to express personality. A few years later, those likes started to be less about connecting her to other people, and more about connecting advertisers to her, whether she liked it or not.

“They were used to power the advertising mechanism on Facebook,” she said. “For me on a very personal level, there was something kind of perverse about that, using that expression of individuality in a way to create ad revenue for the company. I’ve been thinking a lot about data privacy and the information that companies collect, retain and share with third parties. I’m interested in how that kind of data could be used to deepen inequalities in society or embolden repressive governments.”

She is documenting how private companies are working with governments to develop surveillance technologies, which in turn brings the public and private sectors closer. She points to companies in China — where transparency and data accountability are minimal — that are designing facial detection and image recognition technology that the government is also using for surveillance.

“People who have historically been discriminated against — those who have been marginalized or displaced — are often the most vulnerable to surveillance and to having their their rights infringed upon,” Ricks said. “The first groups that have their biometrics collected and have all their data collected about them from the government are often minorities who’ve been historically oppressed.”

Ricks believes we’ve been building toward a pivotal moment for data privacy. In addition to increasing consumer awareness, the European Union parliament recently adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which gives consumers more control over their personal data, requires greater transparency of corporate data sharing, and penalizes companies that fail to comply with the new rules.

“In the last five years, people are still optimistic about these technologies, but they are becoming more critical about the tools that they use,” Ricks said. “They understand there’s this fundamental disconnect between what they believe is happening and what’s actually happening on the platforms.”


More work by Rebecca Ricks:

What else can you do?

About Mozilla Fellowships

Mozilla Fellowships provide resources, tools, community and amplification to those building a more ​humane​ ​digital​ ​world. During their tenure, Fellows use their skill sets — in technology, in activism, in science, in policy — to design products, run campaigns, influence policy and ultimately lay the groundwork for a more open and inclusive internet.

11 comments on “Rebecca Ricks: Documenting corporate surveillance”

  1. Donro59 wrote on

    Thank you to remember the GDPR as a matter of fact in Europe. Probably a 27-country union is getting more burocratic than U.S. are with regards to companies investment (and roi) policy, but on the other side UE maintains a balance in order to protect the consumers basic rights.

  2. Dayle wrote on

    Thank you for this and other related articles. We all need to stay informed and not be lulled into merely conforming.

  3. Roberto wrote on

    Ok, now firefox block all adv. This come from block website use your data. My point is that we must to choose. Free internet don’t exist for who made it. Every website must pay servers and some are very expensive, must pay developer, writer ecc ecc. so who pay all this expenses? If you want a free internet you must have poeple that work for free, you work for free? If yes how you pay your bills? Ok have some, not so much, that prefer be famous ( also that is not the true because they want after make money ) than rich…but really you want only article from blogger and not professionals? BTW we have a solution, pay a monthly subscription. You willing to pay that? No. So what?

  4. Roberto wrote on

    BTW… firefox have the 10% of the users in internet, most of them developer, but now also firebug if off so you loose, what if cnn, ansa, bbc etc etc made the same? you block theyr adv they block users to load their website whit firefox……

  5. musa mohammed wrote on

    good i love to this.

  6. Jeanne Cote wrote on

    At my age, 52, I’m definitely nieve in mind, spirited, and just figuring out that my drive to research in depth many issues I deal with daily has brought me deep into the facinating yet rather irrally dark, cunning, manipulative, and sinister world of the criminal yet almost socially accepted hackers. It appeared to me, clear as day, what was transpiring live at the public library my daughter and I frequented daily. When I brought it to the attention of the employee, they looked at me as if I was paranoid crossing the line to delusional. I knew what was transpiring so my next visit, I watched for various inconsistencies in the apps and my data. I pulled up the strings and took screen shots, which I sent Immediately to the libraries IT email. That next week, the library closed for a day. The installed new computers and a new wait system for the public to use them. Many of the individuals who were actively watching the unaware publics information were now roadblocked by new security measures. It was the first time I had seen these cunning, intelligent hackers have to ask library employees why certain programs were acting differently. I was silently proud of the outcome of my actions, yet afraid of the recouse I may face when they noticed it was me. I would not have changed the outcome. I may be older and have learned late in life about the effects on my personal data, but I have a 10 year that I can guide to being fully aware of hers. We need to make things better tban what we knew growing up not only for our children but for all children.

  7. Dave wrote on

    Surveillance? Lot of nerve Firefox, you now routinely destroy my saved home page, steering me to “top sites.” Firefox “top sites” are not top sites I’ve visited, but top sites Firefox and Pocket filter excluding several URL’s that are not left leaning like Drudgereport.

    This is worse than FleeceBlock which places ad content. What Firefox and Pocket do is called propaganda, who bought you soul?

  8. koross wrote on

    Thank you

  9. Steve wrote on

    Thank you for this insightful work. Would it not be possible for Facebook to encrypt itself in some way where all data collection becomes an opt-in situation with each user?

  10. Jim Moskowitz wrote on

    Mozilla Blog staff, you might want to change the typo in the first article under “More work by Rebecca Ricks”. It currently says, “How PayPay Shares Your Data”. It’s actually about PayPal, not some minor knockoff called PayPay. A lot more people might click through to that article if it used the correct name.

    1. M.J. Kelly wrote on

      Corrected, thanks!