The most valuable resource in the world is no longer oil. It’s data.
That was one of the more troubling assertions to come out documentary The Great Hack, which trended on Netflix earlier this month. The film investigated the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a London-based company harvested information from millions of Facebook users without their consent and used that intel to sway undecided voters in favour of two incredibly destructive forces: Brexit in the United Kingdom, and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in the United States.
The Great Hack shows how every little Facebook ‘like’ and interaction you make contributes to a vast psychological profile of 5,000 'personal data points' that can be harvested and sold – and then manipulated. But the Cambridge Analytica scandal was arguably just the first symptom of a disease we, as users, contracted when we began to surrender our privacy for convenience in the digital age.
The vast majority of us don’t read the terms of service when we sign up for social networks. Nor do we usually think twice about linking our various apps and services, wearing geo-locating technology or filling our homes with devices that are always, at least passively, listening to us. Just last week it was revealed that Facebook were employing people to transcribe our conversations for reasons that are not quite clear, but certainly not encouraging. Their rationale? All the other tech giants do it, too.
We don't question these things because they make our lives a bit easier. But slowly the consequences are coming to light, leaving us to wonder just what will happen next.
One clue may be to look to China, and their 'social credit system' – a complicated web of public and private systems that generates ratings for citizens and businesses by judging their behaviour to assess their ‘trustworthiness’. It sounds rather like a dystopian future, but the Chinese government expects to have a widespread state-run surveillance system in place soon with a view to penalise people for antisocial behaviour like smoking on trains, tax evasion and failure to pay fines. The system could impact your ability to buy airline tickets or to be approved for loans.
Which, on the face of it, doesn’t sound so bad, right? If you evade paying taxes, maybe you shouldn’t be able to get a loan. But that's assuming it would be run fairly. In 2018, Chinese journalist Liu Hu discovered he was on a List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement by the Supreme People's Court. It meant he couldn’t buy plane tickets and was banned from travelling on some train lines and even buying property. His crime: writing about censorship and government corruption. Suddenly, a government-run social rating system feels like a very different propisition to trading our most glamourous holiday photos for ‘likes’, and that's because it is.
As more and more of our personal information is stored digitally, we become more vulnerable to data breaches and hacking, something that’s beginning to happen with alarming frequency. In 2017 a global cyberattack temporarily crippled the NHS – arguably the most important public service in the UK. And we all remember the Ashley Madison hack in 2015, when a group calling itself ‘The Impact Team’ disseminated the data, including personal names, emails and addresses, of people who’d signed up for a web service that facilitated extramarital affairs. ‘The Cloud’, meanwhile, has been frequently exposed for what it is: not a magical, impenetrable system in the sky but just another computer in a server room subject to intrusion, like all tech.
Digital data can also leave us vulnerable to harassment and violence. A frequent tactic of the alt-right is to publicly expose private information to encourage attacks against their perceived enemies. This presents huge challenges for marginalised voices such as the LGBTQ+ community in Russia, where there are laws against promoting ‘gay propaganda’ and activists are frequently harassed, attacked or even killed. Last month the campaigner Yelena Grigoriyeva was found murdered after she'd received death threats online and was listed on a fringe website that encouraged people to track down and assault people in the LGBTQ+ community.
When you start to factor in the rise of fake news, deepfakes and the drip feed of content designed by algorithms to place us in increasingly polarised echo chambers, the threat to our free will – not to mention sanity – becomes ever more clear. So what can we do?
We can start by throwing away our phones and smartwatches and disentangling ourselves from the network of websites we’ve willfully handled our information over to. And we can ask our friends and family to do the same because, as detailed in The Great Hack, Cambridge Analytica wasn’t just harvesting data from people it targeted, it was scraping information from their network of friends as well. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – we should delete them all.
So far, so simple. But it’s harder to remove our digital profile from banking and credit rating systems. It’s harder to question our health care providers on where and how they’re using our information. It’s harder to double and triple-check every news story we read to ensure its source is trustworthy.
If you really want to remove yourself from the system entirely, escape getting a star-rating from the government and avoid seeing fake videos of presidents declaring nuclear war, you probably need to live off-grid, producing your own food and clothes, and trek into town to get your news in print (for as long as they're still printed, anyway).
More realistically, you could support the growing, larger-scale efforts to fight back. Some US states, like Ohio and New Jersey, are considering legislation that would mandate more robust data-protection programmes from tech companies. Technology nonprofit Mozilla is going after Facebook, saying the social media company is failing at its newfound commitment to transparency. US Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, is even calling for large companies like Facebook to be broken up.
Facebook responded by pulling Warren’s campaign ads, and while the company claimed it was for improper use of their logo and, eventually, restored them, it showed how difficult it is to combat this system. This digital world we've built for ourselves is woven so deeply into the fabric of our lives, we can’t pull out the threads without the whole thing unravelling.
Maybe we should start small. The next time you sign up for something, at least read the terms of service and try to suss out what you’re getting yourself into. It might not solve anything just yet, but at least it’ll give you a sense of what it is you’re signing over for a little fun, a little entertainment, or a little convenience.