“We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us, and what circumstances they come to know it.” — Timothy Snyder
Thinking about privacy while staring at a screen
Lately, I have seen that online conversations that are supposed to be between two people sometimes get published as screenshots within people’s social media. The context is usually around someone being courted in an ineffective manner through Instagram (it’s commonplace amongst my generation for people to bash on those who “slide into the DMs” and fail miserably). So when I see these screenshots, it makes me wonder: is anything communicated through the internet genuinely private. I could hope that there is something I have online that is only seen and known by a select group of individuals that I choose but, that is a forlorn hope at this point. When I publish anything, whether it’s within a private chat with a family member or on an Instagram account for all the world to see — it’s pretty much guaranteed that other third parties can access that data.
We are growing up in a world where having a tablet at the age of five years old is the norm; the consequences of such consumer behavior yet to be seen. One said result might be that future generations grow up without a sense or a desire to have a private life – privacy may be redefined if not eradicated altogether.
Privacy’s importance is currently dwindling at a pace parallel to the accelerating technological advancements that are occurring every day. And I believe part of that stems from how little we understand what data is. More importantly, the internet is still brand new, and there isn’t a sense of a digital etiquette that’s become embedded within our culture. We are still attempting to figure that out.
When is it appropriate to document a moment?
Let’s start off at the individual level. Any moment that you record and send to a peer could be become harvested and research without your consent nor your knowledge. As we’ve seen with leaked emails of specific political candidates, all systems that house information and data can be penetrated. Everything on the internet has a backdoor — all forms of encryption can eventually be unlocked. Even in the instance that you are sharing messages with someone via Snapchat, as an example, the safety net of getting a notification that the other person took a screenshot is meaningless. Some people simply take pictures of a screen from a separate phone to get around this feature and although rudimentary, it still gets the job done.
Today, one just has to navigate the internet under the assumption that anything sent to another person can be seen by an unknown third party. Because the internet is so new, we have a responsibility to make sure we consider how our actions today build habits for future generations tomorrow. For example, the way in which we tend to normalize certain activities such as, recording a moment and not asking permission to have someone in the video.
To what context do we allow ourselves to be on camera? Should we share live videos of funerals? The birth of a child? Take photos of a child’s life and share them online with friends, family, and strangers to see as they grow up? At what age can they decide not to consent to such documentation—will they even know that their privacy is being replaced for content creation. To what extent do we begin to set boundaries on what we share and don’t share? What are the intimate moments of our lives that we keep outside of the digital world?
We have become our own paparazzi, documenting every meal, special occasion, and amusing facial expression we could think of. And sometimes we include others in these posts, often without even asking them.
Another concern I have is the way data we generate online is extracted and used to manipulate our views of the world. This issue of itself is still new and a lot of us still don’t have a robust understanding of how this manipulation happens to us on a daily basis. An example of how our eroding privacy not only is changing our cultural norms but, also changing how we view the world.
The tools for manipulation: social media advertising & filter bubbles
The desired outcome that all marketers strive for is called a conversion: the desired action of the user used to gather information, some form of monetary value, or both. A conversion could be having you merely fill out a form for a newsletter subscription or filling out a personality quiz to see which Harry Potter school you relate with the most. Due to there being a variety of desired actions being asked of you, from a whole slew of varying publishers and advertisers, social media platforms use a bidding system to determine which advertising units you will see, when, and why.
Aside from how much money one needs to spend to target you, the success of an ad is mainly determined by how much the advertiser can learn from the experiments they are conducting on you. This could simply be figuring out which button color for “click here to learn more” works best for a specific zip code. The ad targeting specs within Facebook, in particular, allow marketers and researchers to learn about any persona’s character traits that can lead to the potential success of any given goal. What’s more concerning isn’t that these targeting options are available to anyone, but that the sophistication of these targeting systems is continuously developed over time and at an accelerating pace.
We all know how Facebook was utilized by the Russians during the 2016 presidential election. I believe this is just a precursor to how future elections will be played out. Those who are aware of how these ad targeting systems work will be able to turn the tides within the political battlefield with more ease than those who rely on methods (however useful they may still be) that were used in the pre-social media days. Those that understand how to leverage the new raw material that is data will be much more equipped for the world we are coming to see over time — a world without any sense of privacy and where all our information is used to manipulate our collective and individual perspectives. Outside of granular targeting and ad testing that marketers can leverage to change public opinion, we also have the issue with filter bubbles to discuss.
“[Filter bubbles] are something we can only opt out of, not something we consent to.” Shane Parrish of Farnam Street Blog wrote a piece on how our opinions of the world are often skewed because of how our news feeds cater solely to our interests. On social media, taking Facebook as the prime example, any content we receive from a media outlet has been carefully selected to keep you on the platform for as long as possible. If we lean on the conservative end of the political spectrum, it is highly unlikely that we will see news articles and videos from publications that have dissenting opinions on hot-button topics. The platforms we use to feed us content that is agreeable, ensuring that we have the best experience possible while using them. With the development of such bubbles comes the spread of fake news, often targeted, to further manipulate us. And this content’s effectiveness is maximized because of how much data is being harvested from our use of these platforms.
In a recent interview between Ezra Klien of Vox and Mark Zuckerberg, Mark breaks down how fake news has proliferated through Facebook and his plans to stop it. In its most basic form, fake new is simply propaganda. Author Octavio Paz perfectly encapsulates the definition of propaganda in his book The Labyrinth of Solitude, when he states, “Propaganda spreads incomplete truths, in series and as separate units. absolute truths for the masses.” There are three categories of fake news according to Zuckerberg: spammers, who try to pump their content on the platform with the sole goal of monetization; state actors, such as the Russians who try to influence political thought and election outcomes; media outlets, who disseminate information with varying degrees of trustworthiness. The first two categories seem to be less of an issue with new developments to Facebooks artificial intelligence and security infrastructures. It’s the third category that stirs up much controversy, mainly due to the issue of free speech. According to Mark, “Folks are saying stuff that may be wrong, but they mean it, they think they’re speaking their truth, and do you really wanna shut them down for doing that?” Even if the information isn’t shared with harmful intent, the perpetrator that spreads inaccurate information still has a right to share it amongst their networks. That’s false information you could have consumed yourself in the past twenty-four hours.
We all have a voice on these platforms but, who determines the validity and trustworthiness of what we say? What is the rubric they are using and are they willing to disclose that comprehensively to the public? How do we know the governing bodies on social media are qualified to determine what’s trustworthy? To what degree are we held accountable to do our research on a particular topic, to see all the nuances? Some of us don’t have the time and only read the headlines, leading to the core issue at hand: filter bubbles and fake news may be here to stay because we have yet taken the time to develop the mental tools to combat them. Even with all the technological advancements that Facebook and other organizations are making to protect us, as a populous, we don’t have the education set in place to combat these issues.
In addition to the Russian involvement, it was extremely easy for companies such as Cambridge Analytica to manipulate the masses using Facebook, and I don’t believe they will be the last organization to skew votes during an election. Facebook is now at such a massive scale – with over 2 billion users which does not include owned properties such as Instagram – that their goal of creating a global community is closer to reality than one might think. Another issue Zuckerberg is facing is dealing with is determining what the policies should be for people all around the world. How does one organization protect the privacy and the manipulation of an individual’s data across borders? What can the individual in question do to defend themselves?
Global developments we need to consider
The most historical moment in Mark Zuckerberg’s career to date has been his recent Senate hearing that occurred in April 2018. It showed just how little our government knows about how social media works. Putting aside their lack of knowledge and Zuckerberg’s performance throughout the hearing, one can see that another thought to consider moving forward isn’t how to protect our privacy but more so, how to prepare ourselves to live in a world without one.
Shoshana Zuboff, a retired Harvard Business School professor, adds insightful commentary on the Senate’s recent hearing of during an Open Source podcast interview. According to Zuboff, Surveillance Capitalism was discovered and invented at Google and remains the driving force of Silicon Valley’s growth. Surveillance capitalism is a new genus of capitalism that monetizes data acquired through surveillance, in this specific case data obtained on social media. “Data is used to research every minutia about you and provide predictive insights into your future actions both online and offline.” We don’t know how this data is being used and we don’t know to what extent the insights that are collected are leveraged to influence our daily decisions. We also cannot predict how this influence into our daily lives will continue to grow shortly once artificial intelligence is integrated into these predictive data crunching systems. The general public does not know what’s really at stake; we are figuring this out as we go along.
Data is a new raw material, in which we are still learning to what extent it is lucrative and to what extent extracting data from people can both benefit our lives and cause damages to them. In response to recent events both in regards to Facebook and other prominent Silicon Valley companies such as Google, Europe, in particular, has taken steps to combat the issues in the tech world with legislation.
There has been a new law passed called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The law requires all internet based companies who handle the data of E.U citizens in particular to, “…be explicit in their efforts to seek consent from consumers before collecting their personal information. Companies also have to give consumers easy access to their own data, and to delete that data if the customer requests it (source: The Washington Post).” Companies are also required to, “…notify users quickly of data breaches when they occur — under the new rules, they have 72 hours to inform the public after a breach is discovered.”
The GDPR provides two changes to a previous law set in place during the 1990s called the 1995 Data Protection Directive. The two changes are as follows, “The first, ostensibly, is universality: a common set of rules and practices that apply across the continent and, it is hoped, the world. The second is enforcement: the capacity for regulators to fine any company in breach of the G.D.P.R. as much as four per cent of its total worldwide sales (source: The New Yorker).” Again, this is largely a response to the global influences that large tech companies such as “the American gafa—the French coinage for Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple,” have on our economies and political landscape.
To what extent this will, in turn, affect the digital lives of Non-European citizens is yet to be seen, there haven’t been many changes to how American companies continue to extract data on US citizens for the means of marketing and research. However, there is hope that other countries will begin to follow suit, “Brazil, Japan and South Korea are set to follow Europe’s lead, with some having already passed similar data protection laws. European officials are encouraging copycats by tying data protection to some trade deals and arguing that a unified global approach is the only way to crimp Silicon Valley’s power (source: The New York Times).” There are signs of change that may occur within the United States as well. According to NYTimes European tech correspondent Adam Satariano, “[A] group of Democratic senators announced a resolution to match G.D.P.R., a sign of how United States policy may change if control of Congress shifts in November.” So for now, one can only hope that legislation can affect (however minimal it may seem) on companies that supply our data to those who wish to harvest it, without telling us what they plan to do with it and why.
So far, what most companies have done in response to this law is merely have more extended privacy policies. Others have decided to block their sites within EU countries. According to Washington Post policy reporter Brian Fung, “Some companies have chosen to go blank in Europe instead of having to comply with the expansive privacy regulations.” The adverse effect this has on general consumers is that we are caught in the middle of a war between those who wish to extract the precious raw material we produce and those who want to protect the very last vestiges our privacy. And if a certain side of the battle wins, a very dystopian future isn’t that far out of reach. In fact, there is already a nation that shows what a world without privacy would look like.
China: A perfect example of the end result
If we don’t begin to take the matter of our digital privacy and education of the digital world seriously, we may end up having our digital landscape influenced to the point that it resembles that of China’s. I use the example of China not only because I’m currently experiencing their digital regulations myself, but also due to how much their influence is growing throughout the globe (seemingly right under the USA’s nose). I first discovered the differences in China’s digital world before I decided to live there, when I read an article from Wired maize titled, “Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens.”
I have been somewhat familiar with the term Big Data for a little over a year now, understanding that it’s the emergence of large pools of information that can teach us things about people at a massive and unprecedented scale. What I didn’t know until relatively recently, is how big data can be used for the governance of a nation. China’s political and social landscape has its differences from the Western world due to the sheer size of its population, among other historical developments (i.e., The Great Leap Forward, The Cultural Revolution, and it’s relations to foreign powers such as England and Japan). Like all nations, China’s unique governance structure is needed because of the unique issues it has to face. How does a government help keep 1.3 billion people in order? How does it ensure the people’s happiness and harmony? Harmony being the operative word in question, China’s answer to this begins with the use of creating a social credit system that rates its citizens on their overall trustworthiness. This system can be seen as akin to the rubric Facebook is implementing to grade the integrity of media outlets on its platform.
China can implement such a futuristic-dystopian system for a variety of reasons. One of the primary ones being that people can adapt rather quickly — being spied upon continuously doesn’t have negative connotations once it’s normalized. The Chinese government has allowed eight privately owned organizations to contribute to a pilot scheme utilizing their systems and algorithms, which will be used for testing before mass implementation in 2020. Two of the eight companies are China Rapid Finance, who helped develop the social networking app WeChat (an image of the platform can be seen above) which has 850 million active users and Sesame Credit, ran by Ant Financial Services Group (AFSG), an affiliate company of Alibaba and is the developer of Alipay. Both companies are big-data behemoths, with the ability to process large amounts of information at blazing speeds – which is precisely what a government would need to monitor its constituents. These apps are used to pay for almost anything, from car loans to electricity bills and all of that data is stored and parsed on a consistent basis. Nothing is left to chance, all of your actions, if you are a citizen or even a resident within China, can be and is being tracked.
The primary use of the system isn’t only to monitor China’s citizens. The primary function of the system is to slowly influence China’s citizens into conducting themselves as the ideal citizen, an ideal that is determined by the government. “So the system not only investigates behavior - it shapes it. It ‘nudges’ citizens away from purchases and behaviors the government does not like.” In addition, your friend’s and family’s scores affect your own and vice versa, so there is social pressure easily embedded into the system, “…instead of trying to enforce stability or conformity with a big stick and a good dose of top-down fear, the government is attempting to make obedience feel like gaming…your rating would be publicly ranked against that of the entire population and used to determine your eligibility for a mortgage or a job, where your children can go to school - or even just your chances of getting a date.”
With the gamification of such a system, it will ultimately lead to its normalization. China’s citizens are already used to having no sense of privacy, so being rated on their every digital action will not cause as much uproar as one may hope. Within the credit system, citizens are rated on the following: their credit history, their ability to fulfill contract obligations, the ability to have verifiable information, their online behavior, and their social circle. The products one buys, the people they spend time with, and how often they pay their bills on time all affect their overall score. With the utilization of big data, this isn’t only possible in China – other developing countries that may feel inclined to follow in China’s footsteps may create similar systems. One could make the argument that the Chinese government understands Surveillance Capitalism even more so than Silicon Valley and the Europe Union. Perhaps that is why the EU is taking preemptive measures to make sure the spread of similar surveillance systems doesn’t proliferate outside of China. The reason why I’ve mentioned Facebook so much in this article is that the company has also taken measures to establish relationships with China.
In a recent New York Times article written by Michael LaForgia and Gabriel J.X. Dance, there has been a recent discovery that, “Facebook in recent years has quietly sought to re-establish itself [within China]. The company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has tried to cultivate a relationship with China’s president, Xi Jinping, and put in an appearance at one of the country’s top universities.” And all of this has been occurring since the social platform was banned in 2009. Both the leaders of China and Facebook could benefit greatly from working and learning together. Facebook in itself could be considered a digital sovereign nation with the number of people it needs to monitor on a daily basis. Certainly, other nations such as Russia and Turkey may see a system such as this to benefit their regimes. I wouldn’t put it past China to find a way to “package” the system and sell it to the highest bidders. Could one speculate that part of governance in the modern era is the ability to efficiently monitor? I only ask these questions to put into debate our current lack of education when it comes to how data is being used on a daily basis.
Part of the issue isn’t only those who use our data; we are also part of the problem. The public needs to be exposed to the issues of data manipulation and digital privacy. We must seek knowledge of how data is used. Without this knowledge, we won’t become privy to how our data is used to move markets and minds.
Questions to think about
How can we set systems in place to educate the generations who use the internet the most? How can we prepare them to think about data as an extension of themselves and not something far removed from their lives? What is proper online etiquette and how do we form thoughtful discussions about it? To what end do we sacrifice our privacy for the sake of optimized user experience?
These are the questions we must ask ourselves now, to better ensure a future in which the individual and the state continue to have proper boundaries. A future in which people still have a semblance of freedom of privacy and where we aren’t being censored on a daily basis, whether in an obvious manner or covertly. And the protection of this ideal future begins with the education about the digital world and how our data is being collected and used.
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- Snyder, Timothy “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century.” Page 88, Tim Duggan Books, Penguin Random House LLC, 2017.
- Paz, Octavio “The Labyrinth of Solitude” Page 68, Grove Press, Inc, 1985.
- How Filter Bubbles Distort Reality: Everything You Need to Know
- Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook’s hardest year, and what comes next
- Cambridge Analytica whistleblower: ‘We spent $1m harvesting millions of Facebook profiles’
- G.D.P.R., a New Privacy Law, Makes Europe World’s Leading Tech Watchdog
- The G.D.P.R., Europe’s New Privacy Law, and the Future of the Global Data Economy
- Why you’re getting flooded with privacy notifications in your email
- Facebook & the Reign of Surveillance Capitalism
- Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens
- Facebook Gave Data Access to Chinese Firm Flagged by U.S. Intelligence
- China’s trillion dollar plan to dominate global trade
- Does China’s Digital Police State Have Echoes in the West?
- The Great Firewall of China: Background