Obscure Adtech Companies Are Simulating You Through Your Phone

Money talks, and simulation now defines the surveillance economy.

If you’re at all interested in privacy and data sovereignty, the one article you need to read this month is this excellent dive on Gizmodo by Shoshana Wodinsky. It’s straightforward and easy to understand even if you’re not steeped in tech.

She outlines the ways that all types of data is still slipping through the cracks—even when you’ve deactivated location services and bluetooth—and being aggregated into a simulation of you by adtech companies you’ve never heard of like Liveramp. An example of how this works in practice:

When a person turns off location services on her phone but uses a credit card to buy a six-pack at her local drugstore, there are countless adtech orgs tapping into that single purchase to map out the coordinates of that store, and the beer-buyer in question. If, after that, she walks over to her friend’s house to, say, watch old Pokemon reruns, that same process happens: mapping out whose wifi network it is, where it’s located, and who’s the Poke-fan doing the connecting. Even though there’s no geolocation data explicitly changing hands here, if there’s any data leaking out, you can rest assured that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of organizations on the other end whose sole job is mapping that back to you.

We’d call that creepy as hell, but the adtech world just calls it “identity resolution”: the tech tying every digital breadcrumb back to the original human that left it. And for the most part, this isn’t a solo effort. You can expect that the point-of-sale data generated by our beer-buyer is going to pass from one data aggregator, to another, to another, piecing together different parts of her digital footprint gathered until then.

Because of the labyrinthine nature of this sharing, it’s essentially impossible to track down and legally prevent or pursue—not the least of which because politicians are just woefully simulation illiterate.

If this is concerning to you—it should be, particularly since all this info can easily make its way back to law enforcement. Wodinsky outlines steps you can take to obfuscate this data, though unfortunately the upshot is that you’re probably best off using a burner phone if you plan to protest.

All that said, there’s another angle on this information I’d like you to consider. Increasingly, the world runs on surveillance capitalism, and the fundamental tools for this economic paradigm come from adtech.

And what adtech is doing is finding ways to create more robust simulations of you and everyone around you. I cannot understate how important this is. As a subject of understanding and public importance, simulation is no longer the domain of mathematics and military training. It’s closer to what Baudrillard obsessed over—though far more mundane.

In the 2020s, the formal understanding of “simulation” will become only a narrow, narrow minority of the simulations that will define you and the world around you. Simulation is the transmission mode of what I call our “Pathological Reality” paradigm.

There is no longer a “base reality” because there actually is no longer any semblance of a shared or “consensus” reality. Instead, strains of reality—borne in pathogens that range from news stories to memes to “identity resolution” data sold to social media platforms—compete for market share. Thus far, the bad actors have gamed this Pathological Reality paradigm most effectively, be they propagandists or marketers. I don’t have answers for that yet. I’m trying to understand how we might use these concepts to create “strains” predicated on valuing quality of life and foregrounding truth in discourse. I’m treating my Substack as a place where I can be freer with my writing to work through ideas in real time. Formal Forbes coverage is here—but don’t be surprised if you see these ideas pop up there in the future. :)

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