In September 2016, the former chief editor of Psychology Today warned:
A recent Pew survey found that 91 percent of American adults are now concerned about the fact that they have “lost control” over how their personal data are being used, and a recent study of mine suggests that people are revealing about 40 percent more personal information online than they would if they were more aware of how that information might be used.
I think people will be even more concerned when they understand what is really at stake here. When, day after day, people give away small bits of themselves to Big Data, they eventually give up power over their lives.Robert Epstein, “Free Isn’t Freedom: How Silicon Valley Tricks Us” at VICE (September 2, 2016)
As he goes on to explain, in return for lots of free internet services, we are recorded 24 hours a day and the information is legally shared with business or the government.
Epstein, a strong Clinton supporter in 2016, has since warned that, based on a study of the 2016 US election, Big Tech meddling in the 2020 US election is a risk (paper): “Was the bias the same for all search engines? No. The level of pro-Clinton bias we found on Google (0.19) was more than twice as high as the level of pro-Clinton bias we found on Yahoo (0.09). The difference between these values was highly statistically significant (p < 0.001).”
Indeed. In recent years, a number of media have begun to detail the intimate ways in which cell phone calls enable tracking and recording of users’ data. Users may not realize that they don’t own the data, not even their own medical data. Whoever collects it for whatever purposes owns it. One ad exec quit the industry, stunned by his discovery of the relentless snooping: “With every post, click, and purchase, we have become the product. I didn’t agree to that, and I bet you didn’t either.”
The vastly increasing data empire extends to “good works”: Google provides “free” software to schools but it collects data on the students. In short, as tech philosopher George Gilder likes to say, the problem is not the social media companies’ ambitions as such, it’s the fact that their services are deceptively “free,” which masks the significance of their ambitions.
Now, as more people are looking for solutions, how about some solutions?:
● Russ White points out that, as a first step we can start doing today, we can reduce our “digital exhaust”; that is, take the time to choose and use browsers that are not constantly signaling where we are and what we are doing. Also, close tabs and say no to pop-ups.
● Don’t live in a “news bubble.” Again, Russ White offers some specific ways of avoiding dependence on one, easily manipulated source: How to know if you are trapped in a bubble (“filter bubbles can be self-reinforcing, creating a “one-way ratchet” in your beliefs so that they become stronger”) and how to get out of it (“change your search engine every so often, so you can see the results of different algorithms”), and more.
● One emerging discussion involves whether the billionaires’ tech behemoths should be paying us for the data that makes them rich and powerful. But that’s more complex. Social media pioneer David Gelernter and Brave browser CEO Brendan Eich think they should.
Gelernter: “ It just seems to us that if this information makes Facebook such a huge amount of money, why don’t we make some of the money…we, meaning the users?”
Eich: “You are not a product. Why use a browser that treats you like one?”
But Russ White, whose background is in internet co-operatives, isn’t so sure. He argues, “Paying users for data, however intuitively fair it might seem, is not going to solve the privacy problem. User data should not be bartered for services. Privacy is a fundamental right tied to the person, rather than something on which a price tag can be placed, which can be sold for a fistful of dollars.”
But, as that discussion continues in many places, the recent revelations by ex-Googlers Gregory Coppola and Zachary Vorhies remind us that it’s more than just intrusion; it can also be manipulation, perhaps for a political purpose:
Coppola, for example, warns about Google searches:
In a recent article, Coppola offers more details of the mechanics of opinion manipulation, using Google News as an example and choosing “donald trump” as a subject: “The most-used site, CNN, is selected in 20% of all articles! In other words, even with the millions of sites on the Internet, 1 out of every 5 stories about “donald trump” from Google News is from CNN.”
The significance of that fact is that, among larger American media networks, CNN is thought to interact with the current White House in the most hostile way.“Google engineer reveals search engine bias” at Mind Matters News He found Google pretty neutral in 2014; the bias started with the US 2016 election
Vorhies found that manipulation was ingrained in the Google culture:
And the reason why I printed these documents was because I saw something dark and nefarious going on with the company. I felt that our entire election system was going to be compromised forever by this company that told the American public that it was not going to do any evil and I saw that they were making really quick moves, not only in the documents but also in the internal speeches that the executives were giving to the company that they were intending to do that, that they were intending to scope the information landscape so that they could create their own version of what was objectively true.“Whistleblower: Google told cops to do a “wellness check” on him—He can be seen doing a sort of perp walk on the video; some portions transcribed here ” at Mind Matters News
Robert Epstein asked in 2016:
Do you see the problem? Over time, the arrangement has gotten out of balance. What started as a little anthill of information Google had about you grew into a mountain; on your side, you are still just getting that trickle. Over time, what started out as a reasonably fair arrangement has put you and Google into radically different positions of power. They have a lot of power over you—the power that comes with information—and you have no power over them.
If it chose to do so, Google could use the information it has about you to embarrass, coerce, or even ruin you. It could also use what it knows about you to influence you. It could give you information that’s slanted one way or another to benefit the company or to achieve any goal it likes; you would have no way of knowing it was doing so. As my laboratory and online research has shown, by slanting the information it gives you, Google can influence the decisions you make about small things, like where to travel and what to buy, and also about big things, like whom to vote for and what to believe.Robert Epstein, “Free Isn’t Freedom: How Silicon Valley Tricks Us” at VICE (September 2, 2016)
Maybe not so much now. And some things don’t change: For example, forewarned is forearmed.
More information on the price we pay, in many ways, for “free” services:
Prof: Google must not choose the next president. Robert Epstein, a Clinton supporter in 2016, thinks Big Tech meddling is a risk, based on past behavior.
Your browser CAN be secure if you are willing to think beyond Google Some good choices give you much more control over whether information about yourself, your family, and your contacts is collected and sold. (Russ White)
Life after Google: More private and more profitable? Reviewing Gilder’s Life after Google, Ralph Benko asks, If our attention is worth billions, shouldn’t we market it?
Facebook gets rich off what we tell our friends. Social media pioneer David Gelernter also has a proposal for sharing the wealth more fairly
Cash for your data won’t solve Big Tech privacy issues It seems like such a great idea… at first. But how do you know what the data is really worth?