[Preamble: as Facebook grapples with Cambridge Analytica, and its abuse of our personal data, I’ve been thinking about what it might be like to live in a “post privacy” world. And also, how we might prepare ourselves for it. But let’s begin with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.]
Facebook and your personal data
For a while now, we Facebook users have been soundly reprimanded by the experts and analysts for our blindness. The main message, lightly paraphrased:
“You foolish fools. Did you really think that Facebook would let you have social media for free? Didn’t you realise that if you’re not paying for it, YOU ARE THE PRODUCT? Shame on you. What did you expect would happen? Honestly.”
I’m not sure why so many feel that the appropriate response to this kind of news is to rebuke the injured party. It’s like implying that a politician’s corruption is somehow the fault of the people that voted for them (it’s almost certainly the politician’s fault that they are corrupt). Or like the old adage of pretending that sexual abuse is a function of the victim’s choice of skirt.
And if we’re honest, ten years ago, those same experts and analysts were fretting about whether or not Facebook would be able to monetise itself. Not even they could quite predict how Big Data would become so important to advertising (or brainwashing). I mean, there was a time when Facebook users were only a potential market – not the product!
But nonetheless, whoever you’d like to blame, here we are. Actively tracked by Facebook, Google and almost anything that’s managed to insert a cookie into our internet browsers.
And to be clear, you don’t even need to have a Facebook account to be tracked.
I recently listened to an LSE lecture from September 2017, given by Professor Bev Skeggs, titled “You are being tracked, evaluated, and sold“.
The basic message: if you are on a webpage that has a link to Facebook at the bottom (this website included), you are being tracked and your personal profile is being tweaked. And while some of your personal details might be missing, much of it can be inferred from your browsing patterns anyway (within a statistically significant likelihood).
My guess is that the only thing holding the advertisers in check is the hunt to find the right algorithms to process all the data that we’re generating.
The problem with Big Data
It’s relatively easy to say “Hypothetically, if I know that you post dog pictures on Instagram, and buy dog food on Amazon, and occasionally enter a veterinarian address into Google Maps, then you are a dog-owner.” That deduction is almost directional: I am looking for dog-owners, and so I can come up with a list of traits to determine what a dog owner is.
But if, instead, I just gave you some other data points:
- Spent two seconds longer to close a pop-up for make-up remover than a pop-up for signing up to a fashion blog.
- Looked up the word “interregnum.”
- Mistyped “how to find a dropbox delete” before closing the Google tab.
- Watched a youtube video titled “Worst Skating Fails”.
- Liked a Facebook photo from a wedding in the Cape winelands.
I mean, what could you do with those? How do you explain to an algorithm how to prioritise some data points over others? It’s one thing to harvest data – in the absence of artificial intelligence, it’s another thing altogether to process it.
But we can do enough damage with those directional deductions.
Especially if you’re Facebook, and you have a ready list of directional priorities built into those profiles (with a list of likes, and your friends’ likes, and your patterns of interaction).
The Facebook Backstory
So the backstory here went something like this:
- You know how you can use your Facebook account to log into things instead of having to create your own account every time you want to check restaurant reviews or something?
- Until yesterday morning*, whenever you did such a thing, Facebook would hand over all of your personal data to the app owner/developer.
*Mark Z just announced that there would be significant changes to how much data Facebook hands over.
- But worse, whenever you did such a thing prior to 2014, Facebook would also hand over all of the personal data of every one of your Facebook friends.
Just think on this:
- Let’s assume that I am particularly fastidious about my Facebook account and what I use it for.
- But then let’s say that I had some enthusiastic school acquaintance who kept pestering me about accepting her friendship request.
- Which I eventually do. Because “what’s the harm in it?”
- Then, this acquaintance, who is clearly too enthusiastic about her social media account anyway, swans about doing quizzes to find out which Disney princess she’d be.
- And she logs into the site/quiz-app with her Facebook account, so that she can share the results on her newsfeed*.
*Obviously, this one is an Ariel – brimful with the kind of shiny enthusiasm that makes one brush one’s hair with a fork.
- At which point, even though I’ve already unfollowed her and her test results, Facebook hands my personal data – on her behalf – to the type of data shark that seduces the irritating with Buzzfeed-style questionnaires.
Enter: Cambridge Analytica
In this particular case, a Russian-American researcher at Cambridge University, one Aleksandr Kogan, built a Facebook quiz app “thisismydigitallife”. About 270,000 quiz-lovers took the quizzes. In the process, they handed over the private data of over 50 million of their Facebook friends.
Cambridge Analytica then used that data to build some highly targeted Facebook ads (mostly attached to the Trump campaign).
Facebook found out about it, and told them to destroy the data. They said that they did. But they didn’t.
Which is about what you’d expect from a data shark. For more, Vox.com has some diagrams.
But there is a reality to face here
- Yes, this sort of privacy violation is not okay.
- Yes, Facebook should have done better.
- And yes, maybe Facebook should be classed as a “public utility” when it comes to our data – and then we should heavily regulate it.
But in some ways, this is almost a red herring.
Whatever Facebook’s missteps:
- We live in a world where our data is digitally required from us, constantly.
- Social media aside – I cannot open a bank account, or apply for passport (or visa!), or register for tax, without having all my key personal data uploaded onto some kind of connected server.
- We communicate with emails and Whatsapp and Skype.
- Unless I’m entering a monastery, avoiding the internet is no longer possible – and once there, I am apparently being tracked and assessed.
And it doesn’t help that we also live in a world that is increasingly hacked. Government departments, social media platforms, cryptocurrency exchanges, retailers, banks, loyalty programs, hospitals – you name it. If there is any data, then there is the
risklikelihood of it being skimmed.
But what does it even mean: to “face” this reality?
We don’t just face the end of privacy. In some ways, we potentially face the end of independence.
“The end of privacy”, in my mind, means that everything I do or say becomes publicly-available knowledge.
But “the end of independence” means that everything I think is potentially twisted without me being aware of it.
It’s something of an existential crisis. Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am – wrote Descartes.
Someday soon, we will face a variation of that: “if I am thought for, then what am I?”
And when someone (or some-AI) cracks the algorithmic code, and takes the swathe of data that I produce every day, and comes to know me better than I know myself, then they can self-deceive me. My likes and dislikes, preferences and habits – those can all become outcomes on the data continuum.
It sounds like an episode of Black Mirror. “The dystopian datapocalypse.”
So how do we prepare ourselves for virtually-naked public living, and the looming functional omniscience of Big Data?
Smells like teen spirit
This situation is not without its parallels. If we’re looking for a similar circumstance, involving:
- An all-knowing God-like intelligence;
- Constant monitoring and supervision; and
- Us, being somewhat gullible, and highly impressionable.
…then that sounds an awful lot like a parent-child relationship.
After all, a parent, from the perspective of their offspring, is effectively Divine. They are the giver of all sustenance and comfort, both emotional and material, to whatever degree it is given. They are also the constant source of supervision, and they know their child long before that child even has self-awareness. Which means they are mostly in control.
Also, like all people, parents are blessed with organic computing-minds more powerful, more discerning and more subtle than any artificial computer that we’ve yet managed to create.
And much like the potential outcomes for Artificial Intelligence (and/or the advertising overlords), there are a range of potential parental outcomes:
- Parents who try to adopt the style of benevolent philosopher kings, and who raise their children to be independent and secure adults;
- Parents who try their best, amidst all their shortcomings, to raise children – who end up mostly independent and sometimes happy; and
- Those parents that turn out to be malevolent and abusive – sometimes without even realising it.
Sidebar: for number 3, I’m mainly thinking about Mother Gothel from Tangled, singing “Mother knows best”.
The point is: as children, we are vulnerable to the powerful and more-knowing adults in our lives. Sometimes, that vulnerability is abused. But there is a maturing process – or an internal evolution – through which we liberate ourselves into independence.
And for the most part, it turns out that we can be quite resilient. We appear to have this inherent wilfulness that rebels against control (even covert control). And while there may be examples where that wilfulness is crushed into submission – there are also examples of rebellion under the most oppressive of life circumstances.
So what happens during that rebellious adolescence?
Here’s a quote from a Yale curriculum:
The Psychological Development of the Adolescent
Adolescent maturation is a personal phase of development where children have to establish their own beliefs, values, and what they want to accomplish out of life. Because adolescents constantly and realistically appraise themselves, they are often characterized as being extremely self-conscious. However, the self-evaluation process leads to the beginning of long-range goal setting, emotional and social independence, and the making of a mature adult.
Three distinct stages can be identified in the psychological development of the adolescent, even though there is a great deal of overlap in the stages, and they may not occur during the age span indicated. During early adolescence (ages 11-13), development usually centers around developing a new self-image due to their physiological changes. Adolescents need to make use of their newly acquired skills of logical thinking and ability to make judgments rationally. When they reach the ages of fourteen and fifteen (the period known as mid-adolescence), adolescents strive to loosen their ties to their parents and their emotions and intellectual capacities increase. The adolescent becomes adventuresome, and experiments with different ideas. This plays an important role in finding one’s relations to oneself, groups, and opposite sex. During this time, the adolescent battles over his own set of values versus the set established by parents and other adult figures. The adolescent also begins to take on more control of educational and vocational pursuits and advantages. It is during this time that adolescents’ self-dependence and a sense of responsibility become apparent, along with their quest to contribute to society and find their place in it.
During late adolescence (ages range from sixteen on), adolescents have a more stable sense of their identity and place in society. At this stage in life they should feel psychologically integrated and should have a fairly consistent view of the outside world. Adolescent should, by this time, have established a balance between their aspirations, fantasies, and reality. In order for them to achieve this balance they should be displaying concern for others through giving and caring, instead of the earlier childhood pattern of self-gratification. At the conclusion of late adolescence they should have had designed or discovered their role in society, have set a realistic goal in life, and have begun in ernest to achieve it.
~ “The Physiological and Psychological Development of the Adolescent“, by Joe Lewis
Basically: adolescence is a journey of self-evaluation. And that process eventually leads to a kind of self-discovery: about who one is within, and who one is in relation to everyone else.
Which, of course, aligns with the message behind almost every major world religion. “Know thyself” – and that truth will set you free, or you’ll be able to reject desire and rise above suffering, or you’ll come to know the right way, or however you describe that spiritual state of fulfilled human nature.
But putting the spiritual imperative aside – even biologically, we seem compelled toward independence.
And we’ve been fighting for it since we were teenagers.
Living in a world of Big Data
My guess is that stress of living under Orwellian conditions will push each of us in one of two directions:
- We could just accept it. When a parent is controlling, the path of least resistance is simply to abandon yourself to their control. I’m not sure that this would result in a particularly satisfying life, but perhaps not everyone needs that. The alternative:
- Spiritual self-evolution.
I mean, it’s a lofty goal.
But remember it’s not “information” by itself that controls people. I could know a lot about the history of art, but that information is not particularly controlling. On the other hand, if I know that you are cheating on your wife, then I can use that information to blackmail you. That is: I can use your fear of your wife finding out to control you.
More importantly, if you’re relatively content, then you’re sort of the opposite of a marketer’s dream. For example, it’s hard to sell a new car to someone that already has a car, and doesn’t care that it’s a bit outdated. There’s simply not enough of a hook at the end of that fishing line.
Let me end with one more analogy.
The State Apparatus Example
Childhood is not the only parallel to a Big Data world. People that live under oppressive regimes face something similar:
- A powerful and coercive authority; and
- Constant surveillance by both the State and your neighbours*.
*One of the methods of control that an oppressive regime employs is the destabilisation of communities. “Guilt by association” treatment for subversive activities means that people have a vested interest in reporting on the unusual activities of their neighbours – for fear that they might suffer the consequences of their neighbours’ actions.
You might assume that the environment of propaganda, fear and constant scrutiny would crush the independent will.
But again, the general human story is one of resilience. And then the demand for change rises up and overcomes.
Of course, that’s also the cultural narrative that we’ve built up around oppression. But often, the myth is more important than the empiricism. If we believe that we’re more resistance fighter than collaborator, then we’re more likely to live up to that narrative.
It seems to me that the answer that we’re looking for is no different to the answer that we’ve always been given.
Whether the threat to freedom is a firing squad, or an advertising behemoth, then we’ll learn to live with it initially. Until we just won’t stand for it anymore.
And if you want to be free before that, then freedom is a state of mind.
Hard work, though.