“Lots and lots of files” – Privacy, data and a new currency
One of the seminal television shows of the 1990s, The X-Files played on myths, legends and government paranoia to worldwide critical and popular acclaim. One of the key episodes of the series found the lead characters, FBI agents Mulder and Scully, happening upon an abandoned mining facility. Contained inside were row upon row of filing cabinets. Inside, thousands of names spilled forth. The sheer number of file drawers is a visual feast for the viewer. But there is more; one of the agent’s names is in those files. Personal data on her (in the form of a tissue sample) has been taken without consent. Down the rabbit hole we go…
We have always operated under the assumption that governments must surveil in order to protect its citizens. The difference today, as Edward Snowden has so plainly shown, is firstly that you are the one being watched, and secondly that the sheer extent of the surveillance and the pervasive nature of its collection is staggering. The pervasiveness of all this is a key point. Not much in the way of policy has changed really in the past fifty years, it’s just that spying on swathes of the world’s population has become increasingly easier and cheaper. Back in 2006, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office warned that the country was moving “towards pervasive surveillance”. Such a prophecy seems to have turned into reality. It creates an uncomfortable feeling that those in charge do not have our best interests at heart, or at least that the ends do not justify the means.
Some of the finest publications in the world have been struggling to make sense of what all this means; Zeitgeist is using this post to highlight some of those key thoughts and issues covered. Back in September, The New York Times reported, paradoxically,
“Even agency programs ostensibly intended to guard American communications are sometimes used to weaken protections. The N.S.A.’s Commercial Solutions Center, for instance, invites the makers of encryption technologies to present their products to the agency with the goal of improving American cybersecurity. But a top-secret N.S.A. document suggests that the agency’s hacking division uses that same program to develop and ‘leverage sensitive, cooperative relationships with specific industry partners’ to insert vulnerabilities into Internet security products.”
Zeitgeist remembers dining alone in New York in September poring over the news. The NSA tried to ask for permission to legally insert a ‘backdoor’ into all digital encryption, but were denied. So they went ahead and did it anyway. They influenced government policy that led to fundamental weaknesses in encryption software. Last week, a federal judge considered the constitutionality of the US’s surveillance programmes. He called the technology used by the NSA “almost Orwellian” and ordered it to stop collecting the telephone records of two plaintiffs. It is one of several cases currently underway.
Of course, such spying would have not have been possible without the consent – tacit or otherwise – of companies in the private sector. There is clamor in the US, UK, Brazil and other countries for more restrictive regulation that makes it harder to collect consumer data. Such policy could make data analysis and collection onerous and might have a significant impact for those businesses that make a living out of using such data. As The Economist puts it,
“Should all this make it harder and costlier for companies to gather information, that would hurt the likes of Facebook and Google, which depend on knowing enough about their customers to ping them with ads that match their tastes.”
The New Yorker recently featured a fascinating article complete with unnerving infographic (excerpted image above) showing just how much information we display on our various social networks is then shared with the platform and its advertisers. This month, a new film, Her, arrives in cinemas, from the director of Being John Malkovich. The heroine is a disembodied voice – acted by Scarlett Johansson – who serves as operating system. The line between her servitude and rapid consumption of all her user’s data quickly becomes blurred. As the reviewer Anthony Lane puts it, also for The New Yorker,
“Who would have guessed, after a year of headlines about the N.S.A. and about the porousness of life online, that our worries on that score—not so much the political unease as a basic ontological fear that our inmost self is possibly up for grabs—would be best enshrined in a weird little [film]?”
Unsurprisingly, the results of a recent YouGov poll in the UK showed consumers were now far less willing to part with their own data. Almost half would be less willing to share their personal data with companies in the next five years. A mere 2% said they would be more willing to do so. Part of the problem lies in a lack of transparency: who is using my data, which piece of information exactly, and how does it benefit them? More importantly, what am I getting in return for surrendering my data? Steve Wilkinson of Ernst & Young offered little in the way of cheering news, “Many customers have recognised that businesses are using their personal information to help increase revenues, and are starting to withdraw access to their private data… In spite of this, there is a reluctance to adopt incentives that encourage consumers to part with personal data”.
Writing in the FT yesterday, Evgeny Morozov penned an excellent article claiming the media was spending far too much time on the intricacies of government involvement rather than how the whole cocktail mixes together. The overreach, according to the author, is being treated as an aberration, that will disappear in the face of tighter controls and the harsh light of day. It should instead, Morozov argues, be treated as part of a worrying trend in which “personal information – rather than money – becomes the chief way in which we pay for services – and soon, perhaps, everyday objects”. The article continues,
“Now that every piece of data, no matter how trivial, is also an asset in disguise, they just need to find the right buyer. Or the buyer might find them, offering to create a convenient service paid for by their data – which seems to be Google’s model with Gmail, its email service… [W]e might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not. As markets in personal information proliferate, so do the externalities – with democracy the main victim. This ongoing transition from money to data is unlikely to weaken the clout of the NSA; on the contrary, it might create more and stronger intermediaries that can indulge its data obsession.”
“Should we not be more critical of the rationale, advanced by the NSA and other agencies, that they need this data to engage in pre-emptive problem-solving? We should not allow the falling costs of pre-emption to crowd out more systemic attempts to pinpoint the origins of the problems that we are trying to solve. Just because US intelligence agencies hope to one day rank all Yemeni kids based on their propensity to blow up aircraft does not obviate the need to address the sources of their discontent – one of which might be the excessive use of drones to target their fathers. Unfortunately, these issues are not on today’s agenda, in part because many of us have bought into the simplistic narrative – convenient to both Washington and Silicon Valley – that we just need more laws, more tools, more transparency.”
“I hope for the comedy… I suspect the horror. Possibly in the future you’ll no longer be permitted to be who you think you are, or even who you’re pretending to be: You will be who they say you are, based on your data-mined, snooped-upon online presence. You’ll be stuck with that definition of yourself. You won’t be able to take off the mask.”
Such disconcerting thoughts on having your own personality dictated to you might once have been the stuff of science-fiction, apt for an episode of The X-Files. Besides adages of truth being stranger than fiction, the clarion call of these publications appears to be that people should be sitting up and taking notice of what has been going on over the last ten years with extensive policy / data / consumerism creep. It is not just the NSA, but the way society intertwines information for monetisation that must be scrutinised if we are to avoid having to worry about trivial things like playing videogames in peace.
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