Recently in the news we have learned that the data analytical company Deep Root Analytics has had its database leaked and put on a public server. Deep Root Analytics are a data analysis contractor that work for the Republican National Committee (RNC). They were responsible for holding the data of 198 million Americans. This leak resulted in the names, phone numbers, addresses and political views of these people on a public server for everyone to see.
But before you get angry at the company itself for this blunder, what you should be saying is “what on earth were they doing with that data in the first place?” another interesting question would be “who else has this data, and do they have mine?”
1833 saw the end of slavery in the British Empire. An industry that was a contributor to the success of the empire. Of all the reason it can be argued as to why this ended, what we must agree on is that public opinion had changed. People begun to believe that it is wrong for a man to be exploited for profit and have no capital returns for the profit he created. But is slavery limited to the exploitation of our physical bodies alone, or do we as people need to extend beyond our physicality?
“I think, therefore I am” said Rene Descartes. He explored the idea that there must be an entity to have created the thought as proof of the reality of one’s own mind. If our mind is an extension of our entity, of ourselves, then surely the exploitation of our mind for profit is also slavery.
Think now of the technology of today, namely, the phone in your pocket, or perhaps in your hand as you read now. Every question you decide to ask google, every email you send to your relatives, every private message you share with your friends, these are all an extension of your mind. Technology is just the bridge between our world and the digital world, and in both these worlds, you exist in some form. I think, I tweet, I am. Our use of the digital world is like a snow capped canvas, and in whatever direction we decide to walk, we embed a footprint in the snow. In the digital world this is a footprint of information on us.
Our mind is not an extension of our body, but the other way round. Our mind is central to what and who we are. Lose an arm and our mind will remain the same. Loose our mind and we become different people all together. Through technology, the digital entity we create is an extension of our mind, and any exploitation of this is what I would call Digital Slavery.
The bad news is that we have already become enslaved, through the exploitation of our data. We have been commodified with the business models of big data companies such as Google and Facebook.
Google chief economist Hal Varian has asserted that one of the four uses of computer-mediated transactions, such as sending an email or using the Google search engine, is “extraction and analysis.” The farming of our information in return for “free” content. To have a greater understanding of the business model of these big data companies, we need to rethink the structure of how they operate.
We are not the consumers. Our digital minds are open for the farming of our information through the footprints we leave in the digital space. Whether we chose to have this information taken or not, it is taken if we use the services they provide.
The real consumers are people like Deep Root Analytics, which contract themselves out to organizations such as the RNC. Big data companies will sell these consumers our data for their profit. The accumulation of information of a society is to have a greater knowledge of peoples digital trends, and how best to exploit them. With the knowledge of your political views companies are able to use behavioural prediction and modification. The RNC are able to predict who stands on what issues and how best to exploit that information to garner more votes. Why else would the RNC need information on 198 million people’s political views.
Aral Balkan, digital-human rights activist, has used the following analogy to describe what having the data could potentially mean, “Say I have a small figurine. If I have enough data about this figurine, I can take a 3D printer and I can create an exact copy of it. Now imagine what I can do if I have enough data about you. Data about a thing, if you have enough of it, becomes the thing. Data about you is you. Personal data isn’t the new oil, personal data is people.”
Harvard University professor, Soshana Zuboff, has referred to this as “surveillance capitalism”. The term identifies the way in which data extraction by companies like Google and Facebook are generating concentration of power over our data. A monopoly of this power is the aim to have market share of our information and monetise it for profit.
Imagine now, if you were to take your phone, place it on record and attempt to walk into the homes of your neighbours, and then try to sell these recordings for profit. They would be very unhappy with this invasion of their privacy. If this clearly ridiculous scenario seems unacceptable to you, you should ask yourself, why is it okay for Google and Facebook to essentially, and discreetly, do the same to you through your technology? For them to enter your Gmail account, scan your emails, and use the information to create profit.
If all this is true, then why aren’t the governments of today doing more? Sadly, it is because the level of corruption in our institutions. We can see it with the fight over net neutrality. Gunther Oettinger was the EU Commissions’ head of Digital Economy and Society between 2014 and 2016. Saying of the proponents of net neutrality “Net neutrality: Here we’ve got, particularly in Germany, Taliban-like developments.”
This is an unelected person with clear power of the digital world for all Europeans, holding contempt for grassroots activism over digital equality of data. That just the idea that we are all digitally equal is comparable to Islamist fundamentalism.
Islamist fundamentalism is an excuse, however, for the FBI to have previously attempted to get a “back-door key” on people’s data from Apple. They want to have access to everyone’s data, but luckily for you, you are a law abiding citizen, so you don’t need to worry – Nonsense!
Our human rights shouldn’t have to be expendable on the condition that if we play by the rules, we won’t be affected. Can we really trust the institutions of power, as they currently stand, not to abuse or exploit this information? Especially with a track record of cooperating with these big data corporations already.
Edward Snowden’s exposure of the corruption of the National Security Agency (NSA) in America, and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the UK, is a clear example that this problem isn’t just corporations, but supposed democratic governments are in clear collusion to exploit us. This is more proof that we are living in Corporatocracy, rule of the people by corporate interests. Technology is being used to exploit us, by corporations with the assistance of governments.
It is important now to say that this problem isn’t a technological problem. Even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has been critical of this business model saying “The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data.”
This is instead a social problem, we need to regulate the collection of our data and make sure that the companies run for the benefit of the people. We need to hold corporations responsible for the protection of our data, and penalise them if they should decide to exploit that information, our information, us. We need to create a space where exploitation is intrinsically designed out. We need to create a space where people are respected equally.
We need digital rights.
We need digital democracy.