Big Brother is in your Spotify: How music became the surveillance state's Trojan horse

Big win for Big Data: As Amazon and Google drive down costs, more people are taking their listening to the cloud

Published March 28, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>F.Schmidt</a>, <a href=''>Mikko Lemola</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(F.Schmidt, Mikko Lemola via Shutterstock/Salon)

Here's how the surveillance state consolidates control: Living in "the cloud" -- where all our pertinent data is stored on computer servers operated by the likes of Google and Amazon and Microsoft -- becomes too seductive to avoid and too cheap not to afford.

On Tuesday, Google offered fresh new support for Moore's Law, the hoary thesis that the price of computer processing power and storage will relentlessly plummet. At a San Francisco event called "Google Cloud Platform Live," the company announced sweeping price cuts for a wide array of cloud computing services. Of particular interest to anyone on the lookout for a cheap backup storage plan: Google is now charging a mere $9.99 a month for a full terabyte of storage. A terabyte! That's a great deal.

Or at least it was, for about 24 hours. Because on Wednesday, Amazon matched the cuts, drastically slashing its own prices for storage and access to computing power. As the inevitable price wars continue, consumers are swiftly going to reach the point where they don't even bother calculating the cost/benefit algebra of moving to the cloud. It will simply be too cheap to matter.

This migration will continue even in the face of the obvious privacy and surveillance concerns associated with storing your data outside the security of your own offline hard drives. Sure, the Snowden revelations about government snooping mean that in the short term, U.S. cloud companies are having a hard time drumming up business from customers who don't want the NSA watching every move. But it's hard to see this as anything more than just a bump in the road; the price and convenience advantages of living in the cloud are too seductive to ignore.

The easiest place to see this is in a domain that the NSA probably isn't interested in at all -- our music listening habits. In the last year, even as surveillance and privacy concerns peaked, music consumers migrated to streaming music services that live in the cloud in accelerating numbers. Increasingly we are renting access to music that is stored outside of our homes and phones and cars. As we do so, we are giving the outside world more intimate access to our listening habits than it has ever had before.

The music industry is delighted at this shift, because studio executives believe that the more they know what we like, the more they can influence our behavior and increase our consumption of music. What we stream, what artists we tweet about, or like on Facebook, or watch on YouTube -- it's all tabulated and crunched and analyzed and correlated with everything else the masters of Big Data can figure out about us. And here's the thing: We don't seem to mind, because this isn't a one-way street. The music analytics made possible by the merging of Big Data, streaming and the cloud promise to expose us to lots of new music that we'll like.

So, it's as simple as this: If Big Brother can generate a killer playlist, we'll embrace him with open arms.

* * *

You don't have to look far to see signs that, after years of fits and starts, streaming music is finally beginning to boom. The Economist recently reported that in 2013, subscription-based streaming music services "had combined revenues of more than $1 billion, up more than 50 percent from 2012." In the U.S. alone, 21 percent of the industry's overall revenues came from streaming. Meanwhile direct paid downloads from services like iTunes are stagnating. No surprise then that on Thursday, Quartz reported that Spotify appears to be positioning itself for a fall IPO.

And fast on the heels of the news reports documenting growing streaming listenership have come a tumble of press releases promoting how these services are leveraging the new possibilities of music analytics to "enhance music discovery. " On Thursday, Songza, an app that already generates playlists based on "the day, time, device type, your location, and your past behavior," announced a deal with the Weather Channel to integrate weather data into its offerings. When it rains, Songza will literally sing you the blues. The venerable music identification service Gracenote announced in January that its Rhythm music discovery service will integrate data mined from social media -- tweets, Facebook likes, Instagram mentions -- into its vast database of data on what people are listening to in order identify new trends. In March, Spotify spent $200 million to purchase Echo Nest, another start-up with state of the art music analytics and recommendation technology.

For any of these systems to work, as music listeners we can't stay at home listening to our locked down iTunes collections or hoarded vinyl. We are required to collectively be online and engaged in a public conversation about what we are listening to. In a long and fascinating blog post explaining how music-recommendation services currently work, Echo Nest founder Brian Whitman described a process eerily similar to how one might imagine the NSA searches for terrorist cells online.

We crawl the web constantly, scanning over 10 million music related pages a day. We throw away spam and non-music related content through filtering, we try to quickly find artist names in large amounts of text and parse the language around the name. Every word anyone utters on the Internet about music goes through our systems that look for descriptive terms, noun phrases and other text and those terms bucket up into what we call “cultural vectors” or “top terms.”

Ty Roberts, CTO and co-founder of Gracenote, told me that such tactics, combined with algorithmic analysis of factors like a song's "mood" or "tempo," help overcome obstacles that have been holding back music-industry growth for years. Consumers, he argues, are still willing to purchase music, but are hesitant about plunking down even as much as a dollar for an unknown quantity. The new music recommendation services driven by music analytics and made possible by the wholesale migration of listeners into the cloud via streaming services, says Roberts, will encourage us to "explore new music." Relying on the brute force of a search function to try to find good new stuff in a catalog of 25 million or more songs is hopeless. There's no way to find the juicy stuff without the music industry taking an active stance. This is the surveillance state quid pro quo. The more we know about you, the better we can make your life. It's a brave new world of new music.

* * *

The migration to the cloud is happening so fast that, in the case of music, it breeds paradoxes. For example, even as it becomes feasible to store large amounts of data online, the necessity to do so disappears.

I can best explain what I mean by using my own example. When I saw Google's announcement of its cheap new storage plan earlier this week, I thought, aha,  this will solve my backup storage problem once and for all! I had spent a good part of the previous weekend revamping my home stereo system. This included transferring my 120-gig digital music library to a dedicated network access storage (NAS) device that connects directly to my wireless router and allows me to smoothly stream all my music throughout my house via a wireless stereo system.

Those 120 gigs represent years of sweat and financial equity -- a lot of ripped CDs, a lot of music purchases, a lot of wrestling with recalcitrant iTunes software over the years — and a lot of anxiety. Once, around five years ago, I had both my desktop hard drive and an external hard drive fail within the same week, and I ended up losing half of my music collection, forcing me to laboriously re-rip and re-download.

I don't want to ever go through that trauma again. But until now, I've never felt willing or able to pay for the kind of off-site cloud storage that would give me full security. Google's price cuts made cloud backup finally seem like a feasible solution.

But when I was showing off the newly configured system to my son, and explaining to him my concerns about backing up my data, he just looked at me blankly. Music library? Why bother? When I was his age, I was buying new vinyl every week. But the vast majority of his music comes to him via Spotify and Pandora. He may occasionally buy a song or an "album," but those moments are the exception, not the rule. He is exactly the kind of music consumer that is fueling the global shift to streaming media. The future will be more like him and less like me.

This is true in two senses -- my atavistic desire to claim ownership over my music files, and my unease at exposing my listening habits in public. Netflix already knows what video content I'm streaming. Amazon gets a glimpse at my reading habits every time I look at something on my Kindle. Why should Spotify find out how many times I've listened to Beyoncé's "Partition" in the last two weeks. The notion that the fact that I liked Nick Cave's Facebook page and follow him on Twitter could influence song recommendations makes me feel queasy.

And increasingly old-fashioned.  I discovered that many people in my age cohort -- early technology adopters who had embraced MP3s with passion and abandon -- were in a similar situation. We had music libraries, but increasingly, we didn't quite know why. Streaming is so much more convenient, providing access to an effectively infinite number of songs, and, best of all, really does seem poised at getting better and better at introducing us to new music, at expanding and broadening our musical lives. My Sonos wireless system allows me to flip from my iTunes library to Spotify to Pandora so smoothly that I find I am consuming more of all those services, and thus generating much more data for outward consumption. If even someone who considers himself hyperaware at how Big Data and cloud computing enable the surveillance state is so easily co-opted, then really, what's the use of even pretending to resist.

Why should I even bother to back up my existing data? If I lose it, I'll just get what I want from the cloud hereafter -- I'm 100 percent positive I wouldn't bother to re-rip all my CDs for the third time. Sure, the cloud is the physical embodiment of the surveillance state. But its siren song works too well to turn it off.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Amazon Big Brother Google Innovation Spotify Surveillance Surveillance State