Mark Zuckerberg was recently hauled in front of a congressional committee, to explain his side of the story. The reason he was there, related to the controversy in which his company disclosed of Facebook users’ data, to third parties. Events surrounding that transaction have become international news, prompting headlines around the world. Facebook is now embroiled in a scandal and inexorably linked to a data management company with some extremely questionable practices.
The data management company is ‘Cambridge Analytica’ (CA) and, as if the questions raised by Facebook providing (or allowing to be taken) scraped details of more than 85 million Facebook accounts were not enough, the events involved took place just before the 2016 US Presidential election. The suggestion is that the information CA took was used to target content, sometimes ‘fake news’ towards swing voters.
A major part of the problem is how poorly the ramifications of data breaches are understood
Zuckerberg’s nightmare is just one example of the growing amount of data which we produce about ourselves and give away in the blind hope it will not be used against us. The story has highlighted the tip of the iceberg about data gathering. Perhaps the most important thing the breach revealed was not the data itself but the almost staggering lack of understanding about how such information can be employed.
Just like the public that was affected by the data disclosure, it appears America’s leaders struggled to understand the ramifications of what had happened. One of the most interesting aspects of the exchanges between Zuckerberg and those questioning him was how little the questioners (members of Congress representing both the Democratic and Republican parties) understood about, how his company and product worked.
Many of the senators asking questions, despite being prepared by staff, had fundamental knowledge gaps when it came to their understanding of the technology that Facebook and CA had used, and what it could do. This is obviously concerning. If senior government representatives, who are employed to make decisions our behalf, and to represent our views on privacy, struggle to understand the ‘what’ of public and private information gathering, they most certainly do not understand the ‘why’.
What is intrusive technology and why is it a problem?
Technology is the use of information to solve a problem. Your Facebook page, your Google searches, your browsing history and your email inbox are all examples of technology solutions, which solve problems and which contain data. The use of technology becomes intrusive when someone other than you pursues and obtains these data and uses them for their own purposes.
Behind the scandal and the lack of understanding the problem has exposed is the truth of why modern technologies can be so intrusive and represent such an issue both for individuals and the country. If the technologies themselves are not well understood, the fundamental concern they create is even less well grasped.
The problem with intrusive technology is not, necessarily, the technology itself. The problem is that the technology gathers data and the data can be used to model our behavior. The process, of taking data about an individual, sifting it, sorting it and looking for general correlational trends in behavior, is called propensity modeling. It’s a branch of mathematics and its pretty abstract stuff. From the point of view of those who might wish to intrude on the data, this is good news. People’s eyes glaze over when the issue is discussed. It’s seen by many as ‘too hard’ or ‘too geeky’ to understand. That plays right into the hands of those with nefarious and malicious intent.
In a private circumstance, this data analysis could be used to determine the product we are most likely to purchase next. Facebook’s revenue stream depends largely upon doing just that. The most likely manifestation would involve a company showing us an advertisement, for that next product, which was particularly likely to work on us.
There is evidence that, by understanding the pattern of your data, Facebook can get to know you better than those with whom you share your life. The Financial Times reported, for example, that with as few as 300 ‘like’ data points (that is, the software can establish 300 things you have hit the like button on in Facebook) it can predict your action in a circumstance better than your spouse. Smaller numbers of likes meant that the software could predict you as well as your friends.
To be clear, this is not just a Facebook phenomenon. The principle applies to any data you ‘leave around’ the internet.
Private life technology intrusion& your privacy setting
Intrusive technology has filtered into our private lives quietly. Consider your relationship with the following technologies. Just like Facebook, each of them has access to no small amount of information about you. And just like the propensity modeling that CA performed to influence the election, each of these can be used to build a profile on you which will predict how you will behave in a given set of circumstances.
- Your cellular/mobile phone: Your cell phone is the single most invasive aspect of technology you own. Insert a mobile phone plan into it (with an adequate data entitlement) and you send more information about yourself than someone would receive if they had you followed by the KGB and surrounded by surveillance bugs. Your location, speed, messages, browsing history, a relationship map, interest, bank balance and so on are all there to see.
- Your home voice assistant: Even 3 years ago, Samsung had to withdraw a ‘Smart’ TV from sale because it was ‘listening to everything people said in their living rooms.’ Samsung was unfortunate in that circumstance. It is likely, although unconfirmed, that any connected piece of home hardware, whether from Amazon, Google, Apple or LG, is similarly connected and likely also listens to everything you say.
- The future of monitoring- your Assets: The Internet of Things is rolling our around us. The average home already has more than a dozen internet-connected devices. By 2030, that number is set to rise to 125 billion. That’s 16 devices per person, for every man, woman, and child on the planet. In the home, this new internet of things items means everything from your electricity meter to your front door and car are all very quickly be connected to the cloud. Once online, these assets too will start recording data which can be fed into propensity models.
Each one of these internet interactions then is logged and stored on the internet. This, alone, does not create the problem. Once the data has been created, it then needs to be analyzed, to develop the mathematical models which can then target messages which are appropriate to you and which may then change your point of view on a subject. It is at this point that the question of privacy settings is raised.
Unfortunately, most people, as we’ve seen are unaware of not just how the technology works but what the data can be used for in the background. As a result, they care less about getting their privacy settings set right. Indeed, they may never have considered their privacy settings important enough to check. The door then is left wide open for the misuse of the information that the majority of people have left online.
Summing up the risks we face from intrusive technology in our homes
We need to face the reality of this circumstance. To a corporation, or a government, as individuals, we are simply a dataset with a unique identifier, and propensities to act in a particular way. The more data those companies and governments have, the more accurate they will become at predicting how we will behave. That is, the more likely they are to be right about what we’ll do next, whether that’s might be to purchasing different products, or voting in a particular way.
We, as those individuals, might feel that we are more than this. We could feel strongly that we are persons of free will that deserve privacy. Whatever philosophically different viewpoint we might adopt, does it matter that others disagree?
We want to live safely, we want to buy products (and appreciate when we are shown products we like – that’s why we watch commercial TV in such large numbers) Does it matter is intrusive technology tracks us?
To some it will and to some, it will not. If it does matter to you, buckle up. There is always going to be more surveillance and data collection. Remember, all of the ideas that have been laid out above, smart TVs, Facebook, smartphone monitoring, have happened in the last decade and a half. It is almost inconceivable that, in another 15 years, governments and private corporations will not literally know us better than we know ourselves. They will be using that information to further their own aims.
Neil Aitken is the editor in chief for WhatPhone.com.au. He has worked on small business telephony solutions in the past and has written on the subject of telco trends, innovation and SIM Plans for Business Insider, The Sydney Morning Herald, Vodafone Australia and Savings Room, one of Australia’s leading blogs.