Until We Ban Data Brokers, Online Privacy Is a Pipe Dream
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
Our nation is controlled by opaque, amoral artificial intelligences -- and so are we. When I wrote yesterday how I feel trapped by Facebook, I was just scratching the surface of the way that big-data AIs analyze, taunt and manipulate us.
Facebook is the worst of them, because most AIs are really only interested in selling you things. Facebook is interested in keeping you engaged with Facebook, and as I said yesterday, that often means filling you with anger and fear.
Facebook has shown that a big data AI can control our opinions and manipulate our emotions. But it's far from the only AI of its kind, and this is just the beginning. The big data AI cat is out of the bag, and it knows everything about you.
Facebook is particularly powerful because it has convinced people to log the contents of their lives within its walls. Most big data systems need several different data sources, collected from different theaters of activities, to create their profile of you: where you click on the web, the locations tracked through your phone, who your friends are.
Facebook uses buttons and cookies embedded in web pages to build a profile on you even if you don't have an account. But even if you use an ad blocker and don't ever click "Like," there's enough data out there for Facebook to know plenty about you. It could track what your friends say about you, and use data collected from other sources. If you have a whole network of friends in one neighborhood, there's a good chance you live in that neighborhood; if you shop at a bunch of chain stores in a neighborhood, and those chain stores share your loyalty card data with data brokers and those data brokers share it with Facebook, Facebook would be able to figure out where you are.
Because there are so many data sources, opting out of Facebook data-sharing won't opt you out of the manipulations and predations of big data. If we're going to get a handle on these AIs, we need solutions that target the whole ecosystem, not just one particularly noxious site. The conversation can't just be about Facebook.
Just look at China, which is experimenting with a new "social credit" system. Like the Black Mirror episode "Nosedive," it will control your ability to buy plane or train tickets based on what you "buy, say or do." Here in the US, we generally freak out at the idea of the government controlling our lives in this way. But we're passive when private industry tries to do the same.
Just today, I have a pitch in my inbox about "the fastest and most accurate facial recognition solution … This AI technology can scan 1 billion photos and recognize/identify photos in just one second." According to the pitch, it's ready to deploy in banks, offices and hospitals.
It doesn't matter if you don't have a Facebook account: Your bank card and loyalty card usage will be tied to your face, and your bank will share that information with data brokers such as Experian. You can't opt out of banks and stores.
Every time you step within reach of a camera, the AIs collect data on you. Every time you use a card. Every time you get tagged by a friend in a photo. Even if your Facebook is locked down, de-permissioned, put away. Any solution to the predations and manipulations of big data is going to have to be a big one.
Americans, by nature, hate hearing that they need systemic solutions. Our culture is all about individual action and individual failings. We want to hear that flipping switches, turning off options and sending emails will fix things for us. We want individual control. But without entirely opting out of society, we aren't going to get it.
Ban data brokers
If we really want to break the AIs as a whole, we just need to stop them from sharing data with each other. This would have to be a wholesale ban on data brokers, enforced at the federal level -- not just notification, the way that the EU's new GDPR regulation works, but killing the personal-data-sharing industry entirely.
To protect behaviors like trying to import your Google calendar into Outlook, the outright ban should affect only data brokers, which collect data from one site, bundle it and pass it to others. Other companies that collect personal information should be forced to request specific permission for each destination they want to share data with -- blanket permissions wouldn't be accepted. That would make large-scale data harvesting relatively inefficient.
I need to make very clear that this would not fix the primary problem with Facebook. It knows enough about you, through your interactions solely on Facebook, to make you enraged for clicks. Facebook needs to grow a conscience and stop feeding off negative emotions.
Blocking data-sharing would be a little annoying. You might have to come up with different logins for different websites again. But the only way we're going to free ourselves from a world run by AIs to break big data back down into little data again.