My sister recently bought a new car, a 2016 Suzuki Vitara. It’s nice. She took me for a spin the other day so I started checking out its gizmos. I was messing around with the sat-nav, demanding directions to the Taj Mahal and Timbuktoo, when I noticed it had a history function. It hadn’t been wiped after its sale. From its contents I was able to infer the car – and its owner’s – travels over the past two years. He or she lived in Dundalk, but they worked at an office in Dublin and it seemed they got around quite a bit. I found out where there’s a good bagel place in Dublin, how they’d visited Croke Park… and how they’d been to the doctor and the hospital. When I learned this, it stopped being funny. I became aware of how intrusive I was being and how vulnerable the privacy we often take for granted is. As we move through an increasingly connected world, the digital footprints we leave behind can say a lot about us.
Modern autobiographies begin before we’re born. They’re ghost-written algorithmically by programs who scan statuses like “I’m Pregnant!!! This is not a drill!!!” and relay your tale to toymakers and nappy companies. Baby bump photos, ultrasounds and gender reveal parties, broadcast to friends and family on Facebook and Instagram and YouTube are displayed side by side with advertising. Our lives are recorded, typologized and monetized before we ever see sunlight. Our first steps go around the world – and our first falls. Never before has sharing our lives with others been easier and more convenient – whether we like it or not.
When I bring a new girlfriend home, if my mother likes her and is feeling mischievous she’ll bring out the old albums with my childhood photos. These are precious possessions, leather-bound and chronologically sorted depictions of me at various stages ruefully squinting in bright sunlight on some beach or arranged around my grandparents in my good clothes and polished shoes. I’ll half-heartedly protest about my silly hairstyles or gaudy 90s clothes before she gets them, but its clear there’s a sort of ritualistic nature to the experience. She is saying to the girl – here he is, and here is what he was. Afterwards, there’s a palpable sense of shared intimacy and trust as the albums are safely restored to the shelf along with the rest.
Increasingly, the lines between such private moments and public display are being blurred, facilitated by corporations whose business models revolve around learning more about you than you know about yourself. The change has been gradual but inexorable, ushered along by digital evangelists like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, feature by feature, to thundering applause. But have we been taking the inevitability of such progress too much for granted? I spoke to Dr Mike Hynes of the NUI Galway, who recently authored a paper in the Irish Journal of Sociology calling for greater sociological engagement with digital technology and design: “The internet was always trumped up as this liberating force. An ‘information superhighway’. Tim Berners-Lee and other scientists viewed it as something that would bring education, democracy and would be a force for good. Full stop. Very few people foresaw how it was going to be misused.”
This potential for facilitating malfeasance has been highlighted the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica markets itself as being able to “use data to change audience behaviour”, and they have a lot of data on a lot of people. A whistle-blower named Christopher Wylie revealed to The Guardian that the British company had harvested personal data from the profiles of over fifty million Facebook users with the aid of a third-party app and used it as part of an extensive campaign to influence voters in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Further investigation by Channel 4 News exposed company executives bragging about their ability to manipulate the minds of internet consumers and a professed willingness to employ Machiavellian dirty tricks such as blackmail and defamatory propaganda. In today’s febrile political climate the scandal has been used to excoriate Facebook. Critics claim the company’s attitude to privacy is tantamount to auctioning the family photo albums to the highest bidder.
For all of their calculating, cutting-edge rhetoric Cambridge Analytica’s main mistake seems to have been a classical error – hubris. CEO Alexander Nix took to the corporate lecture circuit after Donald Trump’s election and all but claimed that Cambridge Analytica were the real masterminds behind his campaign’s surprise victory. This put a target on their back. Their indiscretion marks them in distinct contrast to major data brokers like Axciom, who traffic in the personal information of over 700 million people worldwide. The rounded edges and bright colours of those handy, addictive, entertaining free apps on your phone conceal a calculating business model which funnels information on your age, location, friends and spending habits to companies like Axciom, whose website proudly touts their possession of over 1,000 different variables about 90% of the UK’s population. They package and retail this data in clusters such as “potential inheritors”, “early achievers” or “cultural connoisseurs” to credit card companies, marketers – and political campaigns.
Facebook’s entire business model is based on allowing third-parties to access their user base, in order to sell advertisements or gather information. Lost in the furore surrounding the Cambridge Analytica scandal has been any mention of the competitor which dwarfs them in the industry – Google. Google possesses far more personal data than Facebook, drawn from Android phones and the billions of searches every day which are quantified, analysed and used to micro-target specific advertisements. During his Senate hearings this week, Mark Zuckerberg did an admirable of job of suppressing the urge to shout, “Everyone else does it!” The different treatment seems come from Google’s funkier, friendlier public reputation, as exemplified by their company motto – “Don’t do Evil”. This carefully curated brand of geeky innocuity is belied by their historic willingness to collaborate with the US surveillance programs and military programs.
I asked Dr Hynes if, as a researcher involved in quantitative analysis, the prospect of getting his hands on the kind of datasets possessed by these big companies excited him. His eyes light up at the idea. “It’s a sociological wet dream to think of getting your hands on that kind of information – and using it as a force for good, because at the moment it seems to be used as a force of manipulation instead. The amount of information that must be in the cellars of Google, Facebook and even Amazon has to be so significant that if you could use it for good it could be hugely beneficial. Instead of using it to sell people more new things that they don’t need, we can help them to make informed choices that encourage healthiness and an environment which is more conducive to your emotional well-being.”
Is there any end in sight for the Surveillance Capitalism industry? Dr Hynes thinks it may arrive sooner rather than later: “I think we’ll come into an era in the next decade or so where we’ll be over this phase. People see the internet and Facebook as something that will be with us forever. I remind them that as teenagers they all had Bebos – and where is that now? There will be a post-Facebook phase but I worry about that too. Facebook is listed on the stock exchange and if the stock price falls, their shareholders will tell them to sell something. All they have to sell is your information. If you have a teenager somewhere who posts about sneaking a joint somewhere at the back of a disco, well, in fifteen years’ time he could be running for office – and guess what? Somebody has that information.”
It’s a depressing vision of the future – a digital foot stamping on a human face forever. However, the recent uproar about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica might be the start of a new public awareness of issues of privacy, tracking and the shady world of audience manipulation. Perhaps the most important piece of news for Facebook, Google and Axciom came from a courtroom in Dublin. On Thursday morning Justice Caroline Costello referred a court case brought by Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems to the European Court of Justice. The case concerns the movement of Facebook data between the EU and America, but its implications will be binding to all transatlantic data transfers. Schrems alleges that the interception and surveillance of this data by the US National Security Agency is a violation of his right to privacy under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Based on previous rulings, it’s highly likely that the court will rule in his favour. Only time will tell whether the latest news will amount to merely a bump on the road to global domination or a major headache for Silicon Valley.
Cathal McGinley is currently an undergraduate student on the Bachelor of Arts (Joint Honours) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway