Especially “secret” ones.
One of the interesting aspects of my job is that I hear from a wide variety of computer and technology users. And by wide variety, I mean a very wide variety.
The vast majority are just folks trying to get things to work. I sympathize. Deeply. I’m often in the same situation myself.
But one thing I don’t do, unlike a small subset of folks, is believe that corporations have some hidden agenda with nefarious plots to invade our privacy, separate us from our money, or force us to upgrade our hardware when we don’t want to.
I don’t believe in conspiracy theories.
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Some people believe big companies conspire to exploit or harm individuals. I just don’t see concrete evidence. Common theories include misuse of data collection, hardware sales manipulation via Windows 11 requirements, cloud-storage spying, using smart home devices as surveillance tools, and social media mind control. These theories generally lack proof and overestimate the ability of people to keep secrets. It’s critical to stay skeptical and remember that simpler explanations — not driven by malice but perhaps by incompetence or error — are almost always more accurate.
Before I begin
Needless to say, the topic is controversial in some corners. Some are absolutely (and angrily and loudly) convinced that big tech corporations target them individually for who knows what. They carefully explain1 how their conspiracy theory is the most true and the most egregious and how the rest of us are sheep for not seeing what’s happening right in front of us.
Of course, they typically use the very technologies they’re complaining about to make those accusations. OK, then.
I’m a very, very strong believer in Occam’s razor:
The simplest explanation is usually the best one.2
And perhaps even more strongly, Hanlon’s razor:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
People love to attribute things to malice even though we are surrounded by more than ample evidence of stupidity or incompetence.
That being said, I absolutely believe malice, and even complexity, is possible. All I need is proof. Once there’s proof, conspiracy theories are no longer theories.
And there’s precious little objective, verifiable proof.
Let’s tackle a few of the common theories.
Data collection is used to track you individually
There’s no doubt data collection exists. I’m not debating it. As I said, I care about proof, and the proof is everywhere. Search for something you’re interested in purchasing, and the ads you see for that very same something on various sites you subsequently visit is just the tip of the iceberg of proof that our data is collected.
Heck, I even collect data relating to my newsletter: how many people open it, which articles get the most clicks, and so on.
Here’s what I believe is a critically important distinction: Data used to make generalizations about large numbers of people — aka “aggregation” — is completely different than data used to target specific individuals. It might be the exact same data, but how it’s used makes all the difference in the world.
The fact that I can tell that 1,000 people clicked on a link in my newsletter intrudes on no one’s privacy and allows me to learn how to provide a better, more relevant product. If I were to use that information to ask, “I wonder what articles John Smith is reading?” that’s another matter, and I’m not doing that.
I believe the same is true of most tracking and data collection efforts. No one cares what you as an individual is up to. Don’t take it personally, but that information is virtually worthless. What matters is what large numbers of people are up to. That information is gold.
I understand that the opportunity for abuse exists. For example, while it’s totally possible to identify how many people opened a newsletter without recording who they are, my newsletter provider still tracks at the individual level. Why? So I can diagnose specific delivery problems when they come up. I do that fairly often, and it allows me to provide better service.
But you do have to trust that I’m not stalking you personally through your newsletter opens and clicks.
The same is true for big data collection. We don’t know what level of data is truly collected — individually identifiable or in-aggregate only. I trust that they’re not stalking me as an individual because I see no benefit (and only high cost) in doing so.
I don’t believe data collection is generally used to track the average individual at all. My exceptions are oppressive government regimes, of which the U.S. is not (yet) one, and individuals targeted by law enforcement. But the average Joe? No.
I’ll believe it if there’s ever evidence, though.
Windows 11 exists to sell more hardware
More specifically, the accusation is that additional hardware requirements were added to Windows 11 to force people to purchase new hardware in order to run it.
It could happen. It’s just extremely unlikely in the face of these facts.
- You don’t have to upgrade to Windows 11 — ever — if you don’t want to. Eventually, there may be inconveniences, as support for Windows 10 may drop from the software you use, but once again, you’re not being forced to upgrade. You can choose to solve your problems some other way. There are many alternatives.
- Corporations (Windows’ true, primary, customers) have successfully pushed back with workarounds to install Windows 11 on “non-compliant” hardware.
- The new hardware requirements have been explained to be about increasing system security. Not only has this always been a perceived weakness of Windows, but it makes more sense that Microsoft might use this as an opportunity to address it than some nefarious plot with manufacturers.
- Not one shred of evidence has been produced.
I’ll believe it if there’s ever evidence.
OneDrive (and Google Drive, and so on) exist to slurp up your data
The accusation is that when you upload files to cloud storage, your files are examined by these online services to update some personalized profile about you specifically or used to train large language models (LLMs, aka AI) or provided to the government for surveillance.
It could all happen. It’s just extremely unlikely in the face of these facts.
- Microsoft already has access to everything on your Windows PC. Why would they need to add complexity, and access less of your data by looking at only what you choose to upload?
- No one’s forcing you to use cloud storage. Yes, some attempts are extremely heavy-handed (looking at you, OneDrive), but that seems like more of a “stupidity rather than malice” situation. A true surveillance operation would require you to upload everything (which they already have access to if you buy into the previous point).
- No one’s preventing you from encrypting what you store online. In fact, you’re often encouraged to encrypt your data for a variety of reasons. Encryption prevents anyone, including the storage providers, from ever seeing your actual data.
- The amount of data that would need to be processed is enormous; unimaginable, even. We love to think that agencies like the NSA have unlimited computing power. I’m sure it’s a lot, but I also think it’s foolish to think that the amount of effort needed to make any sense of all that data would be expended on anything or anyone other than the highest-value targets.
- I strongly believe you and I just aren’t that interesting.
I’ll believe it if there’s ever evidence.
Smart home devices exist to spy on us
This conspiracy theory holds that voice-activated devices like Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Home, Apple’s Siri, and others exist primarily to listen continuously and collect data on our activities.
My research turned up this interesting read. Study: How Amazon uses Echo smart speaker conversations to target ads is a 2022 article based on university studies that seem to indicate some level of data usage on Amazon’s part. Amazon, of course, takes issue with some nuances of the study.
To me, there are two salient points.
- It seems true that interactions with the device — meaning your proactive use of the device using voice commands — may cause data to be collected in such a way that subsequent advertising might be more targeted.
- But I saw no indication that non-interactions — meaning the device is passively waiting for its “wake-up word” while you talk about other things in the same room — cause any data collection.
Friends and I have run informal experiments talking about topics while an Echo was within earshot to see if it affected anything we saw thereafter. It never did, as far as we could tell.
I see this as similar to Google search. Google can use what you search for to “tailor your experience”, as they call it. But only what you explicitly tell it.
It could happen. It just seems extremely unlikely, even if only for the extremely negative repercussions such inappropriate actions would earn.
But, again, I’ll believe it if there’s ever evidence.
Social media exists to control our minds
ChatGPT reminded me of this one. The concept is that social media platforms are deliberately using algorithms to manipulate users’ emotions or political opinions, possibly at the behest of shadowy government organizations or powerful private entities.
Honestly, given the evidence, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
However, I have a slightly different take on it.
Some social media outlets, which shall remain nameless, absolutely exist to promote a specific agenda. The “catch” is that they preach to the choir. They’re not trying to make anyone change their mind but rather profit off the interactions of like-minded individuals. If anything, these platforms’ “manipulation” is limited to amplifying existing opinions in order to create more engagement.
Some social media outlets suck at moderation. There’s just no other way to put it. As a result, while manipulation isn’t the platform’s goal, they allow themselves to be abused by third parties to that effect. The platform may, as a result, begin to swing one way or another as certain manipulations take hold, but it remains independent of the platform’s actual goal, which is typically to make money. Unfortunately, making money is often at odds with effective moderation, so the manipulation by others is passively allowed to continue and often increases.
A few more
As I mentioned, I asked ChatGPT about some of this, and it presented me with a couple of other popular conspiracy theories that are less mainstream but I know are out there (besides some being “out there” ).
Hidden messages in software updates
The idea is that regular software updates from big companies contain hidden codes or messages intended to control or monitor users in some way beyond what is stated in the update notes.
Rarely are these companies that subtle. Or coherent.
But, as always, theoretically possible. I’ll believe it when I see evidence.
Quantum computing and cryptography
The theory is that governments or large corporations have already developed advanced quantum computers capable of breaking current encryption standards, and they’re keeping it secret to covertly access encrypted data worldwide.
I suspect that if quantum computing like this existed in the hands of the government, they’d be using it to encrypt information in ways that no human could ever decrypt without a correspondingly capable quantum computer of their own.
This one is interesting because I don’t believe it’s in place… yet. We’re clearly headed down a path where quantum computing will affect many aspects of computing, not just cryptography. But we’re many years away from that, I’m certain.
But I could be wrong. Show me the evidence.
AI as a tool for mass surveillance
The notion is that Artificial Intelligence, especially in public spaces, is being used not just for security but for mass surveillance, profiling, and tracking of individuals beyond what is publicly acknowledged.
All I can say here is “maybe”… but perhaps not as all-encompassing as some might believe.
It’s no secret that AI is being applied to more and more situations as its capabilities increase. That it might be used on, for example, existing surveillance video and CCTV to, say, track a suspect seems plausible to me. That it might be used to track each and every one of us seems like an almost ludicrous overreach.
Again, I could be wrong, or this could happen sooner than we think. I look forward to the evidence.
“Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”
Attributed to Benjamin Franklin with an assortment of variations in circulation, this is perhaps the single biggest reason I’m so skeptical of almost all conspiracy theories and keep asking for evidence rather than hearsay.
I heard it first relating to the conspiracy theory that the moon landing had been faked. The number of people who would have had to keep the secret to maintain the cover-up was measured in the tens of thousands. In other words, the ability to keep that a secret, especially for this length of time, is so impractical as to be laughable. I know, believers have a rationale that side-steps the issue, but still… it’s a huge factor that I don’t think can be refuted.
The same is true for almost every conspiracy theory I’ve discussed above. The number of people required to cooperate on the implementation while simultaneously maintaining some awe-inspiring levels of secrecy is absurd.
It just doesn’t pass the sniff test. Or, put another way, “The simplest explanation is usually the best one.”
“There’s no conspiracy” is much, much simpler than “Thousands and thousands of people across the country and around the world were able to keep a pretty amazing secret.”
We fear what we don’t understand
Why do conspiracy theories exist? I’m sure there are plenty of reasons that psychologists and sociologists can argue about for hours.
When it comes to technology, though, my take is that our lack of understanding is at the root of a lot of our distrust.
Without knowing how the sausage is made (in gory detail), it’s much, much easier to attribute things we don’t understand to nefarious causes rather than more boring and benign ones.
Not that incompetence and stupidity are benign per se, but they’re not intentionally malicious. And incompetence — or even simple mistakes — and stupidity are much more common than you might think. Technology is amazingly complex. I’ve often commented that I’m amazed it works at all. The conspiracies that so many seem concerned about add a level of complexity that, in my opinion, just isn’t practically achievable.
If it sounds too good — or too fantastic — to be true, it probably isn’t.
If it feeds your existing paranoia or someone else’s agenda (and often their pocketbook), it’s worth being even more skeptical.
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