Where is the data?
Data-driven services are ubiquitous. They all feed into machine learning algorithms who’s purpose is to decode the human psyche.
- E-mail providers scan your e-mails to learn about your interests & online purchases
- Entertainment services gather all kinds of information about what catches your attention and stimulates specific emotions
- Every time you spend money financial institutions and retailers are analyzing your explicit and implicit voting with your wallet.
- Social media and other communication services can adequately measure your individual impact as well as gauge messaging.
- Advertising platforms catalogue and collect not only which sites you visit but how you navigate within and between them.
How is it used?
You may not mind amazon knowing what packages you order. You may not mind google knowing everywhere you have been. You may also be unbothered by your bank knowing your financial history. It’s not a big deal that social media networks are aware of every human that is aware of you. Surely there is nothing wrong with further and further data collection of everything?
The trouble comes when all this information is bundled and sold off to other data warehouses to train more sophisticated AI which is then used to provide input to corporations and institutions. This isn’t simply a ‘social credit system’ this is the groundwork for skynet’s total domination of humanity.
That does sound extreme but consider that this data analysis won’t end with humans. We were simply the easy part because we were able to be tricked into adopting and feeding these systems. Smart contracts are a fascinating aspect of blockchain technology but in this light they are a terrifying tool for the Internet of Things™ to begin tracking and tracing every atom on this planet.
How does that hurt you?
Back to the little picture, there are already very sophisticated systems learning about you specifically and as a human creature. There will never be any guarantee that these tools will be used for your benefit. All indications point to these systems being used to extract as much value from you as possible as quickly as possible regardless.
In fact this is precisely why Youtube has been named as a agent provocateur in the culture wars. Youtube’s recommendation algorithm has been given a lot of flak for ‘radicalizing’ people. This isn’t because Youtube has any specific desire to create extremists, but rather that was a side-effect of maximizing engagement. That was a relatively simple system compared to recent more refined machine learning algorithms.
You have no way of knowing that insidious goals you are being nudged along with and odds are there are many running in parallel. Occasionally someone will point to some benevolent outcome of these systems but these will always be overshadowed by the grievous harms caused by abusing such power.
What you can do to mitigate it?
The only proper way to protect data is to not collect it in the first place. Many data breaches have revealed that a company saying their data is ‘secure’ is merely a promise. Encryption can usually be broken by breaking the people safeguarding it.
This means avoiding data-driven services and tools as much as possible. Trading with cash or barter eliminates economic tracing. Physical mail is already more secure than e-mail especially when delivered via a trusted courier.
Because of this, the sneaker-net is the only secure digital network. Handing someone a flash drive with the files they want won’t create any metadata about what was transferred.
This is not a binary choice however, you will have to make compromises. The benefits are still quite large, because the less these systems know about you the less the effects can compound against you. Every byte of data not recorded will potentially save lives in the future.
If data must be recorded (such as data with great public interest) blockchains are a great tool for this because you can guarantee the data is public and therefore at least people are on a level playing field. This is much better than the alternative where you provide data to a corporate or government database that will be used with little or no transparency.
A digital bill of rights is long overdue. As we have seen, rights must be (nearly?) absolute and require enforcement mechanisms. There must be no distinction made between who may or may not infringe on these rights, none are to be permitted.
My short list for inclusion in a digital bill of rights would be:
- Services and Software are only allowed to collect data that is required for the specific features used by the user to function. Any data sharing must always be opt-in
- Identity should never be required for any platform or service, discrimination against anonymous users should not be allowed.
- Users must have the tools for filter their own experience where possible. Allowing users to choose what content to filter is a much preferable option to blanket bans and censorship.
- Interoperability is a must, unnecessary lock-in should be treated as anti-competitive behavior.
Educating people on the current state of systems will be the most vital part of this challenge. The Libre Solutions Network is being built with an explicit goal in advancing this. This is very much a moral challenge as well as a technological one.