“In the heyday of European imperialism, conquistadors and merchants bought entire islands and countries in exchange for coloured beads. In the twenty-first century our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos.” – Yuval Noah Harari stated in 21 Problems for the 21st Century.
Yuval Harari is an anthropologist and historian, two fields of study that I think are important to take seriously when looking at the current trajectory of the interweaving of technology and society. In 21 Problems for the 21st Century Yuval Harari lays out a couple of these problems that technology has presented to us, most of which are being largely ignored by legislative bodies, and consumers, but can, and do have, major impacts on the individuals and the world they live in.
Today is unlike any other time in history. On one side, we have the most interconnected world that has ever existed thanks to the internet. People from across the globe can connect and interact in seconds or more-so share their personal life with millions of other individuals.
On the other hand we have giant, and I mean GIANT, corporations that have provided a place for people to participate in this new global phenomenon. You can send an email using Google, share images in Instagram, participate in not-so-civil debates on Facebook, find a job on LinkedIn, purchase a book or a car on Amazon, and so many other things. And all this is free!
Well, “free” is being used loosely here. First, these companies all collect data on their users. What this data consist of can range widely, someone can collect simple items such as your name, email, and birthday which isn’t new. Companies through time have used these data points to identify their clients to either keep in contact with them, know when a warranty is over, offer new deals, and so on so fourth. But now different information is being stored. Key strokes, the length you sit stagnant on a page with an advertiser, the sites you visit, the type of system your on, the ads you click and what delivery channel they were on. The list is ever growing as companies find new ways to store data, even biometric data.
Is data evil? I don’t think so. I believe data is power, and power can lead to corruption. For example, on a ‘light’ note, Apple watches can track a users biometric data, and by having externally saved information the watch, or the software in the watch that is, can notice an irregularity and warn the user something is wrong. This is nice for people with low blood pressure, diabetes, or other diseases. But what if this biometric information was being used to sell you medicine? Apple takes this information and provides you with a service. In exchange, they collect data on you and sell it to a third party company, such as New Relic, who then can use and sell the information to advertisers.
“A society is a collection of individuals united by certain relations and modes of behavior’s which mark them off from others who do not enter into these relations or who differ from them in behaviour” – Ginsberg
Its not about the individual. Honestly, so what if a company has data on you? You are a single person and the amount of time, energy, and resources that go into data collection would be a giant waste if their sole goal was to figure everything out about you to target you. Rather, its about the collective, the entirety. When companies can collect data on not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of individuals, the issue isn’t about your personal privacy. I think a good analogy is the cutting down of a rain forest. It’s not about a single tree. When loggers come in, they plan to devastate an entire plot of land, and then move on from there. The individuals trees don’t matter, but there is profit extracting every single last piece of resource available in the area. This is where you sit. When Facebook collects anywhere from 92 – 52k different data points on you, it is not about you. Its about using that data alongside every other single person, all 2,129,000,000 people. With all that data, they can sell to advertisers, who again are not targeting you, rather, targeting designated groups of people with that data they’ve collected.
But, this goes beyond advertising. Its been documented that these data points have been used to incite violence, brain wash (lack of a better word), and create echo chambers. This is highly incentivizing for politicians who have an agenda and need certain actions to happen, or wish to distract individuals with false information. “Fake news” is another item that comes up, where if you can target the right people based on not only their data, but the collective whole, you can change the minds of millions. Foreign entities have been caught using these tactics to interfere with political elections across the globe!
There’s more! Data can be biased and directly impact individuals in their lives off the internet. When people apply for a job they can be oust for not using specific buzzwords, or having a certain area code, or don’t abide by a “white-man” algorithm. Data can be directly used against someone, data that is being collected and used without scientific experiments to find how accurate these data points actually are in deciding these things. Not only can you be denied a job, you can be denied healthcare, insurances, or even homes.
So, why do I bring this all up?
Well, I graduate in December and have a full time offer lined up for me with a FAANG company, one of all the companies being accused of not only collecting peoples personal data, but selling it as well. I interned with the company over the Summer and without getting into much detail, I was working with data.
I have strong opinions and believe there needs to be a massive overhaul, or even better, just an active participation of government bodies, in this mass collection of data. This directly impacts some of my internal debates about whether or not I should even work for one of these companies that actively collect and sell data.
On one hand, I am you. I need a job, I have bills to pay, I have student loans. I need to save money up to support the family I am creating. It reminds me of the ending of 1984 when Winston realizes he can not fight the forces of the world and the only way to survive is to comply.
On the other hand, we are fighters. Knowledge is power and not only understanding what is going on in the world, but being invited into the belly of the beast is an opportunity to change it. Will the code I implement be the big dramatic change? No. But what I, and you, can do with our exposure to these systems is more important. When we enter these spaces, the ones that are creating this issue, we have an opportunity to speak up about what a project should entail. This is easier said than done, I agree, one can’t just say “No, I will not build that algorithm that collects users pulse so we can sell that data”, and expect to keep their job.
But, you can inform people about the dangers of certain systems, how one can actively avoid them. On top of this, we can all vote. We can share our knowledge on these topics in hopes that others see and hear what exactly is being taken from them and how it is being used. Furthermore, we can testify as experts. I am not encouraging whistleblowing, but I am encouraging developers to notice what is illegal and to report it. To accept invitations as an expert witness and scare lawyers and judges with the gruesome reality that not only is a company stealing peoples data, its taking theirs. They are part of the collective whole and can just as easily be sold to a third party company to persuade them, to sell them, to use them. And not only them, but their families. To push that everyone is impacted by this and we are all entering a new stage of civilization. The future depends on us, the software engineers. Are we going to stand by as we are tasked with stealing data from people? Or are we going to try and debug this problem before we can never go back.
Data is power. The ability to pick the fastest route on the freeway, knowing when to bunker down for an incoming tornado, being able to anticipate a heart attack, all of these can be life saving! And they all rely on data. I hope my speal does not come across anti-data. I believe in the collection and usage of it, we have the tools and technologies to collect and use information for amazing things. We can track diseases, poverty, economic disparities, and try to find solutions because we have more data than we can use. The issue is when my data is being used to sell myself, or others, useless commercial garbage, or try to politicize and incite users. Its like donating a kidney or part of your liver. It can be an amazing thing that saves a life, but when you learn that the kidney you donated was actually sold to a tobacco company so they can create some biased experiments to display information that smoking indeed does not kill, well, you may be a little upset. And if that is something that upsets you, the current state of data collection should upset you as well.