Photo by Edgar Chaparro on Unsplash

Dirty, Filty Data

Unpublished NYTimes OpEd c.2013

Silicon valley has a secret, and it’s hiding in plain sight. The greatest heist in the history of mankind isn’t happening on Wall Street — sorry “Occupy” — and it’s not underground in Vegas during a boxing match. Nope. It’s happening right here, in Northern California.

The take isn’t cash, gold, or jewels — that would be too obvious. Instead, we’re taking data. I’m talking warehouses full of it.

We aren’t exactly stealing it from you either, but instead, and here’s the beautiful part, we’re building ways to make it easy for you to just give it to us. The players aren’t some anonymous group of hackers, because this isn’t the 90s. We’re millennials, and we have faces, names, bios, and @handles. Our kingpins are always open to the public. A guy named Zuck has made the world a more connected place. A bald man in Seattle is about to bring us Jetson’s style delivery, and there are a couple of guys who made getting lucky popular long before Daft Punk, and they go by Larry & Sergey. But remember, we’re the good guys. None of us really like that the NSA is trying to steal your data from us, but mostly because we don’t have an API deal.

It turns out I became part of this Game of Data Thrones without even knowing it. I’ve had guys in Men-in-Black suits take our company’s laptops. I’ve gotten “F*ck You” calls from some of the world’s “Most Admired Companies.” I’ve paid people off to avoid trial. I’ve set up foreign companies to legally launder money back into the US to avoid taxes. I’ve “whacked” people because they “flipped”..and when I say “whacked,” I mean I’ve gotten them to quit so I could take back stock options. #VestingCliffFTW. Oh, and I walked into a real estate negotiation with cash, and closed on the spot, and named my liar The Haus of Hipstamatic.

If this were Hollywood, I’d be a super villain — and at times, I’ve felt that way. But this is the valley baby, and I’m just another entrepreneur you’ve never heard of, and we’re the heroes. Let’s be real, I’m just some middle-class kid from the midwest who had an idea and built a dream by being in the right place, with the right idea, at the right time. My co-founder and I told ourselves that we moved to San Francisco for the weather, which is partly true. But the reality is, this is the perfect place to bet big on becoming one of the elite. But I’m no Kanye, and my peers aren’t Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs. As a member of the creative class, my peers are Andy Warhol, Jay Gatsby, and Guy Laliberté. Those are my icons.

Throughout human history there have been a handful of monumental shifts in the fundamental way we live as a society, and with each era comes new wealth, new power, and a blood-bathed trail of change — from hunters to farmers; factories to databases.

Today, the Information Age is still in full swing, and the rise and fall of power is accelerated like never before. Technology is now at the center of all economic power. Since the rise of the internet, the technology sector has become the sun which powers the rest of the world’s economy. Look no further than the Y2K scare of 1999 to see the power of the internet over the banks. The internet even has its own superior form of currency, it’s called Bitcoin, and its still in BETA, so please don’t steal my hard drive. As connectivity and the internet of things continues to take over our lives, the capitalists of the world will continue to monetize eyeballs and data into products and services sold — a.k.a. advertising — and it’s the fuel that powers the internet.

It turns out data, including personal data, is the raw material that gets refined into seamless, tappable, promoted bytes of information. Spend a few minutes shopping online and you can watch a handful of ads follow you around the web as you surf for the next month. Ad exchange is like a magic, virtual GPS machine! Turns out, in most Terms of Service and privacy policies, collecting data is totally okay, but sharing it with 3rd parties isn’t cool. Unless, it’s for advertising. In that case, it’s game on.

In 2007, Steve Jobs changed the course of my life when he introduced the iPhone. It would take me another two years of sitting on the sidelines of the tech industry before I jumped into the game by turning my love of analog photography into a digital experience on the iPhone in the form of the original square-filtered, mobile photograph. Hipstamatic would become the first-ever “App of the Year” in 2010. It would be make us paper millionaires within a few months, and put us in the middle of The Bubble 2.0. However, the deeper I get into this ecosystem, the more I need to shower.

It turns out there’s less magic behind the curtain of the valley, and more manipulation than I could have ever dreamed. Maybe I was naive to believe the “two guys in the garage will take down the system” stories — not that there isn’t some truth to it. However, as it turns out, the tech ‘game’ is much the same as any: When everyone around you is a hustler, the game, like survival, is equal parts social, mental, and physical. Growth hacking is the new black, and data scientists are the unsung heroes of our time.

In a game for control, your information is now the currency of power traded amongst tech companies like Pokemon cards. Ever wonder how Facebook knows to alert you when a new friend joins? Ask Yahoo, or Microsoft — they’re part of it. Remember when Path started uploading your address book to their servers? I wonder what that was about.

In California, we all love to hate each other, but we all need each other — until we don’t. Case and point: see last year’s Twitter and Instagram fight that resulted in Twitter saying “lights out” for Instagram photos, or was Instagram saying “lights out”? And the winner? Facebook. Zuck picked up Instagram in the blockbuster deal of 2012, and as a result has a shiny new data set to match up to his open-unless-you-try-to-get-data-out graph, and is now looking at that ugly word no startup wants to talk about: Monetization. You see, it’s not just about how to serve you ads within one network, oh no. The real money comes from “re-targeting.”

So, here’s my problem: I’ve built a company that helps people capture moments and turn their photos into sharable works of art. And I love photos — taking them. Looking at them. Collecting them. They feed my soul. I’m so glad the internet is moving from text to image. Every 60 seconds, the world is capturing nearly a billion new photographs. However, with the advancements in technology, each photograph you take has massive amounts of data attached to it, like location, time, weather, and if you’ve connected social media, an image can tag the people that were sharing that moment with you.

When you share an image, you’re sharing a lot more than pixels. Personally, I don’t want your data — I just want to inspire you to take more beautiful photos. But, over the past few years, because our company is a part of this machine whether we like it or not, we’ve started collecting more and more information. We do what we can to protect our community, the artists and content creators on Hipstamatic and Oggl. However, I have no idea what data is being collected from within the SDKs and APIs we use from our “partners.” The data train left the station long ago, and it isn’t stopping anytime soon. For me it’s not a question of my own ethics, but its of those in this industry. What if I sell my startup? Who do they share data with?

— LB



En·tre·pre·neur. Believer in Someday. Founder @Hipstamatic

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