Artificial Intelligence. Algorithms. Machine learning. Robots.
Did you just read those words with a slightly negative tone in your mind? If not, congratulations! You’re probably a loyal member of team technology! For most others, however, the mere mention of such words brings along some big baggage. Lack of privacy, data hacks, fragmentation of social groups, polarization, and dis/misinformation to name a few. But why? Why is it that the very thing that was and still is advocated as our gateway to progress, development, and prosperity as a species, has become the very thing we as a community have come to live in fear of?
You Know Me
Algorithms have become an integral part of our lives, especially in the last 15 years of this century. The advances algorithms have had in AI have been exponential and the way this technology has evolved is phenomenal. That show that Netflix recommended which you LOVED. That timely ad for a cheap ticket to Spain for a fun girl’s trip you found a week before flying. The perfect birthday gift online store you searched relentlessly for weeks that showed up as a sponsored post on Instagram. If something even remotely similar has happened to you, then you’ve just experienced the magic of algorithms.
So, what’s the problem? It’s amazing that algorithms are helping us the way they do, that too for free! Life just feels more complicated to imagine without them, right? The truth is, however, that we choose to trade off a very simple, but all-encompassing right of ours in return for the ease of algorithms in our lives.
Data. More specifically, OUR data.
The power of data has grown infinitely in the past decade, so much so that we now call it the world’s most valuable resource, ranking even above oil. And why shouldn’t it be? Our data is as good as a coded, quantitative version of us. They can be public details such as the colour of your hair and eyes to really private information such as your political preferences or sexual orientation. So, isn’t it only natural to want to protect yourself from being a profile in somebody’s database to be manipulated with or influenced? Well, the answer isn’t as straightforward as you might assume.
Consider yourself without the help of a Google search to know what a word means, or the connection of social media to update others and yourself on what everybody’s up to. Except for a select few, most others would find it extremely difficult to give up the leisure of our digital world even though they recognize what they sacrifice instead.
So, the truth is, despite knowing that your data is just out there, available for third parties to see and use, you weigh it out with rewards you get in personalized content and tailored online ads. However, I, like many others, believe that you should still want to protect your data and hold your right to privacy close. And just to give you some perspective, it’s not like we haven’t had some clearly scary incidents in our past to learn from.
You See Me
In the year 2013, one of the most infamous data breaches, the Yahoo Data Hack, occurred. Over 3 billion account details including email messages and other identifying information were revealed. LinkedIn, one of the biggest online job markets, was hacked into in 2021 exposing 700 million people’s private information to hackers. And of course, the classic, Facebook (Now Meta) was hacked into by a low-level hacking forum that revealed highly personal information of approximately 533 million people. To make things worse, Facebook gave a statement at the time saying that they would not even be personally notifying the users involved in the breach!
But don’t go thinking that tech companies are the victim here. Companies like Meta have time and again been involved in the deliberate leak of data for explicit malicious activity. Cambridge Analytica is one of the most famous ones to date. The massive manipulation of American voters in swing states by the data marketing company Cambridge Analytica who had received private profile data from Facebook user profiles.
Take me for instance, the site haveibeenpwned tells us whether our data has been leaked or hacked in an online breach and on which platforms with either our email addresses or phone numbers. Guess what, my data has. That too from five different apps over the last 10 years. And I had no clue about it.
Now imagine, that was just the tip of the iceberg, every few months a new breach occurs on major platforms like these, platforms we use and share information with every day. Information that says everything about us and more. And everything about us, in the hands of businesses and companies we didn’t even know existed, using it to show us what they want us to see. Feel scared yet? You should be. But that’s not all I’m writing for. There is still some light at the end of the tunnel.
You Have to Stop Me
A really simple way our data is harnessed online is via Cookies. They form one of the most fundamental touchpoints in the issue of online data privacy. These small files attach themselves to our online activity to track and monitor everything we do on one or multiple sites. We normally click accept without thinking twice about what those cookies might be tracking or getting their hands into. All because we want what we want now so much that we choose to ignore the bigger picture. The safer picture.
Our data online is by no means safe. It is constantly leaked, sold, hacked into, breached, traded, and spied on. Data is the modern world’s biggest commodity; we are the modern world’s biggest commodity.
Would you trust a random person millions of miles away from you with private and sensitive data about yourself without your consent? No. So why do we allow algorithms to do the same? After all, they’re created by humans, with a very corporate goal in mind most times. Completely black-boxed and hidden in intellectual property rights so no one can ever find out what they use it to do.
With every passing day, our data is being mined further. To identify us, to know our vulnerabilities, our emotions, our faces, our lives. It just doesn’t stop. While we wait for tech policies, antitrust laws, and regulations to play catch up with an industry that never sleeps, we as a generation need to start taking more control. Let’s take those five extra seconds to turn off those cookies, let’s install firewalls and anti-snooping software, let’s educate those that don’t yet know enough about this, and let’s elect political leaders who truly care about the basic human right to privacy. Most importantly, let’s not allow these algorithms to know us more than we know ourselves.
Steve Jobs once said “Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain language, and repeatedly. I believe people are smart. Some people want to share more than other people do. Ask them.”
Well, it’s obvious now that it’s not that simple. Under the pretence of consent, companies have devised purposely convoluted and unreadable terms and conditions, confusing cookie policies, malicious manipulation techniques, and under-the-table hacks and tricks to gain access to our private data. Data that leads directly into our lives. Data that tells anyone exactly who we are. Data we never fully consented to give out, because with this algorithm agreement, we never fully understood what we signed up for.
Cover: Alina Grubnyak /Unsplash