Online data concerns go far beyond privacy
There is no shortage of news telling us all about the end of privacy. Though we are cautioned this may be trending us toward dystopia, in reality, most consumers opt for the convenience and necessity of utilizing technology products for the meager cost of giving away their data.
We look past the mild creepiness of someone else owning and analyzing our data and reason the trade off is a fair one. Targeted marketing and personalized services are good things, right?
What is often overlooked is that the utility of this data for companies goes far beyond telling you your favorite musician is coming to town or that the shoes you have been eyeing are on sale.
The two most alarming factors of our data-driven world that lie in the background are predictive inference and algorithmic decision-making. Until the general public sees the future of our data being owned, bought, and sold by companies, not as the death of privacy, but as the introduction of new society of automated decisions and subtle manipulations, we will continue to overlook the true consequence.
In short, predictive inference is the idea that once anyone has a lot of data about a population of individuals, they can begin making statistical guesses about those people.
Consider the fact that Facebook could guess someone’s sexual orientation or religious affiliation very accurately by simply analyzing their Facebook likes. Or perhaps more disturbing, Facebook was categorizing teenagers by their insecurities and vulnerabilities. And we are only at the tip of the iceberg.
Within research circles, the cutting edge shows an ability to accurately predict whether someone has a mental health illness from their social media posts, or what their body mass index is from a single photo. What these trends illuminate is that using people’s data to infer information beyond what is actively disclosed is the way of the future.
None of us should be surprised if the next decade or two involve health insurance companies start levying premiums not on our medical records alone, but also what they can infer about our lifestyle and health using our data.
The other part of our rapidlyapproaching future is autonomous Artificial Intelligence systems that shape our opportunities and treatment.
Very simply, our data is also being traded and used as training data to make machine-intelligent systems that perform very impressive tasks with no human aid. There are exciting dimensions of this work as AI is likely to improve experts’ abilities to do their work and allow the masses to have machine assistance to perform tasks that otherwise require years of training (if you can afford it, of course).
However, it is important to further recognize that these systems are being used to determine prison sentencing, decide what news articles we see, and filter down to job and college applications. In the current arrangement, nearly every action you take online or in a mobile app is captured to be utilized as training data for one of these machine-intelligent systems. Thus, the data we create and give away freely not only gets turned into grand profits for a small tech elite, but also is converted into real, tangible systems that shape our lives, and increasingly so.
It is this invisible transfer of power that, whether you support it or not, makes it worth your time to be aware.
With all this said, it should make a bit more sense why Jeff Bezos was interested in buying Whole Foods and why Google rapidly acquires companies that gain any sizable user population. It is not about invading your privacy. Rather, it is about gaining intelligence and building new systems.
So as you go forward choosing with whom to share data and what to share, please do not fall prey to the red herring of privacy. Remember that each click lays another brick for our future society. And it might just be time to form an opinion before it’s automatically decided for you.