Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

March 22, 2021

Spotify and Digital Surveillance

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It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. The year is 1984. Surveillance cameras on every street corner, every intersection and every ATM, watch your every move. 

Wait — that’s not quite right. Let me restart. The year is 2113. Surveillance cameras on every street corner, every intersection and every ATM, watch  your every move. They see where you go, they know where you live. They know what you’ve done, they know who you are. And through these cameras, a supercomputer routinely performs a cymatic scan on your brain, converting your mesh of thoughts into a numerical value called a “crime coefficient.” The coefficient determines your capacity to commit a crime and those who exceed a certain value are imprisoned in “stress care” wards where they are heavily medicated. If the system concludes that they are beyond help, they are euthanized. 

Wait. That’s not it either. Let me restart. 

The day is today, and you’ve just listened to one of your many playlists on Spotify. (If you have Apple Music, stop reading, no one cares about you. YouTube music, you can stay.) The only person who knows why you chose that playlist is you. No one else. You felt a sudden urge, or you were craving a song since morning, so you tapped on your screen. And as the sound floods your ears through your headphones, you feel a sense of serenity as you’ve entered your own little world, where it’s just you and your music. But little do you know, I’m listening on the other end.

That’s right, I know every song you’ve ever listened to, every mood you’ve ever been in. I keep it all on a tidy little calendar on my wall. I track your preferences and when I’m bored, I just listen to the music with you. I like to imagine that you and I are friends, and we’re sharing those headphones of yours while we take the bus down into Collegetown, or the Commons. 

In fact, you don’t know me, but I’ve been your friend for a while now — ever since you played your first song on Spotify. I was there, even though you didn’t see me. Or when your playlist is on at the kickback, or when you’re studying in your room alone, I’m there for all of that. I’m closer to you than your best friend — closer than anyone else in this world. I know so much about you that if we met in real life, I think we really would be best friends. 

You might think this is creepy, and I get it, but it’s not like that. I’m not a hacker, or an obsessive stalker, I’m just doing my job. “At Spotify we have a personal relationship with over 191 million people.” See? It’s my job to know you. And the best part of it all is that the “new research” from the accumulation of your data “is starting to reveal the streaming generation’s offline behaviors though their [your] streaming habits.” Because after all, “you are what you stream.” So, it’s not my fault for knowing so much about you. If you want to blame someone, blame yourself. After all, you’re the one revealing so much data — I’m just the messenger. 

But it doesn’t just stop there. Soon, I’ll know much more about you. I’ll know what your voice sounds like, I’ll know when you’re with people and when you’re alone and I’ll know how you’re feeling. And if you’re worried that I might hear your conversations and know the things you say — well, that’s a secret I’ll keep to myself. 

It’s not new that Spotify is extracting data points from the kinds of music that people listen to at different times of the day. But what is new, is that a few months ago Spotify was granted a patent by the US government that allows it to monitor users’ speech for a wild new range of data collection. 

Does that mean Spotify is listening to you right now? Does that mean you should stop using Spotify and switch to Apple Music? Does that mean you’ll have to download your songs and listen offline? I don’t know. Switching services seems like a hassle, and listening offline is fine, but then you can’t look up songs at the same time. If Spotify is listening right now, does that mean anything? After all, we’d only be one data point in the millions of people being monitored and studied. So, in the end, it’s the patterns that matter and not our specific personal information. Plus, all the other services are probably doing it anyway too. 

And here’s the thing: even if you and I stop using Spotify to protest their surveillance schemes, it’s not going to matter. Spotify will keep doing it, sites will keep using cookies, and Instagram ads will continue to suggest things we’ve, coincidentally, just talked about out-loud

So what can you do? Do you turn off cookies on your browser? Do you delete Instagram from your phone? Do you forswear technology and move into a log cabin in the Appalachian mountains? The truth is, I don’t know — but probably not. I mean if you want to, that’s cool, but do you? 

Then what do you do? Well, reading this is a good start, but at the end of the day, the only answers you get come from you. Maybe you want to see what other apps and services are collecting your data, or maybe you want to do nothing. Both are valid responses. That said, it’s not an uphill battle. The EU has set a great example for new data privacy regulations and our government can as well, when it feels like it. 

So if you care about this, keep caring. It does count. 


Matthew Kassorla is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mk928@cornell.edu.