NEW YORK - Facebook and Google were following people around the internet, using an elaborate and invisible network of browsing bugs. They had, within little more than a decade, created a private surveillance apparatus of extraordinary reach and sophistication.

Alastair Mactaggart thought that something ought to be done. He began to wonder whether he should be the one to do it.

the United States, unlike some countries, has no single, comprehensive law regulating the collection and use of personal data. The rules that did exist were largely established by the very companies that most relied on your data, in privacy policies and end-user agreements most people never actually read.


They knew things like your shoe size, of course, and where you lived, but also roughly how much money you made, and whether you were in the market for a new car. With the spread of smartphones and health apps, they could also track your movements or whether you had a good night’s sleep. Once facial-recognition technology was widely adopted, they would be able to track you even if you never turned on a smartphone.


All of this was designed to help the real customers — advertisers — to sell you things. Advertisers and their partners in Silicon Valley were collecting, selling or trading every quantum of your date that could be conveyed through the click of a mouse or the contents of your online shopping carts.


Advertisers could buy thousands of data points on virtually every adult in America and elsewhere. With Silicon Valley’s help, they could make increasingly precise guesses about what you wanted, what you feared and what you might do next.


And no one knew more about what people did or were going to do than Facebook and Google, whose free social and search products provided each company with enormous repositories of intimate personal data.


They knew not just what you typed into the search bar late on a Friday night but also what you started to type and then thought better of. Facebook and Google were following people around the rest of the internet too, using an elaborate and invisible network of browsing bugs — they had, within little more than a decade, created a private surveillance apparatus of extraordinary reach and sophistication. Mactaggart thought that something ought to be done. He began to wonder whether he should be the one to do it.

To Silicon Valley, personal information had become a kind of limitless natural deposit, formed in the digital ether by ordinary people as they browsed, used apps and messaged their friends. Like the oil barons before them, they had collected and refined that resource to build some of the most valuable companies in the world, including Facebook and Google, an emerging duopoly that today controls more than half of the worldwide market in online advertising.