The only way to break up Big Tech
Who owns the data?
That is it, right there. The answer to that question is the only thing that will break up Big Tech and allow us to regain our privacy.
To understand how, let’s go all the way back to our Bill of Rights. The 4th Amendment says:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The things which would have been covered under the 4th Amendment before the digital age which correspond to today are our “papers and effects.” Before computers these things would have been in a file cabinet or safe. Today, the information they contained is in digital form. It is on our computers, on our smart phones, in our email folders, and in the cloud.
I cannot say this loudly or strongly enough… You might think the data in your email folders, your social media account, and in on cloud service providers belongs to you… And you would be wrong.
Big Tech Propaganda
Listen carefully when tech executives from companies like Facebook and Google are asked: “Who owns the data?” Their answers are so consistent with each other that it is almost certainly a coordinated response: “The consumer has control over their information…”
Well, now. The question was not about “control.” Nor was it about “information.”
The technical definition of the word information is “data in context with other data.” Data, in the legal sense, means the actual bits and bytes stored on some device somewhere.
The question is not who “controls” this data; the question is who owns it.
The essential test of ownership is the ability to sell the thing. The person (or company) who can sell the data (or license use of it) is the person or company who owns the data.
The first order of business in breaking up Big Tech is this: Understand that regardless of whether you can delete the data in your social media account, as long as it is on their systems, they own it. They monetize the data by licensing access to it.
If we think Big Tech is too big, the unassailable path to breaking it up lies in this question of ownership. If we can take back legal ownership of the data we originate when we use their services, the thing they have used to become Big Tech — the ability to monetize the data, and the information derived from it — will no longer be available to them in the secret, unrestrained fashion of today. Having looked back at the Fourth Amendment, perhaps we should look forward to a proposed 28th Amendment (there are 27 today).
All data pertaining to the identity of a person, or arising from the activities of a person, and all information derived from the data, shall remain the property of the person.
This brings the intent of the Fourth Amendment fully into the digital age. Consider the following implications:
As we go about our daily lives in public, surveillance cameras capture an image of our face. Facebook in particular has invested heavily in the development of facial recognition algorithms. But as bits and bytes, the output of these algorithms and their association with us as persons is both “data pertaining to our identity” and arising from our activities. Under the proposed amendment, it becomes and remains our property from the point of origination forward. We would then have the right to demand that any company or government agency delete any record which identifies us by the use of facial recognition. Government agencies would then have to assume the burden of showing a compelling governmental interest if they wished to retain it.
Car Computers, License Plate Readers, Toll Road & Parking Transponders
As we move about by our vehicles, there are systems which are capturing our license plates. Toll road transponders, and more frequently parking meter transponders do the same. And perhaps most insidiously, the computers in our vehicles capture incredibly detailed information as we drive.
This data can all be aggregated to create a complete — and invasive — picture of our comings and goings. And it would fall under under “activities” under the proposed amendment. From its origination on forward we would not only own the data (the bits and bytes) — we would own whatever information is derived from it by bringing these various sources of data into context with each other.
Slaying the 800 Pound Gorilla: Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence is likely today’s most significant threat to privacy. To understand the threat we must understand the concept of the “social graph.”
Returning to the definition of information: data in context with other data. From data to information, we can then apply statistical methods to the information and derive knowledge. With the social graph, the knowledge being developed has to do with the “nodes” in the graph — that would be us as people (as well as other people, places, or things).
The ubiquitous “emoji” is an example what kind of knowledge can be developed. As a node on the social graph, when I log in to Facebook and look at a post on my feed, and select the “angry” emoji, I am doing quite a bit more than telling my friends I am angry about something. I am training machine learning algorithms to understand my emotions. In a graph database there are nodes and edges. Both I and the post on my feed are nodes. The “emoji” I choose establishes the “edge” between me and the post. What we do not see are the “labels” attached to both me and the post in my feed. These labels allow AI to learn what kind of node objects are likely to anger me (and other person nodes similarly labeled). With AI the social graph can easily become a tool of emotional manipulation. This can be used for either political or economic advantage.
Under the proposed amendment, the results of the statistical regression that forms the core of machine learning are “information arising from [our] activities” and a property rights interest in the information is established for all persons whose data was used to create the information.
Conclusion: An Honest Digital Economy
The business model of Big Tech is fairly simple: Collect data; bring it into context with other data (information); then use statistics to discover knowledge about us.
Big Tech monetizes the discovery of knowledge about us. It is no more complicated than that. The problem is it is done in secret.
When I place a call on my cell phone I am originating data. If my cell phone carrier wants to monetize that data, I ought to have a right to demand something in return. Ownership of the data might lead us to a place where the consumer can negotiate a fairly simple deal: Give me the phone and service for free, and you can monetize the data I originate to your heart’s content. (I, for one, would take that deal.)
If the government wants to use that same information (the meta-data from my cell phone usage) in an effort to combat crime and terrorism, the warrant ought not to be presented to the cell phone carrier; it ought to be presented to me as the owner of the information. For some of the very same reasons discussed here (data, information, and knowledge) I can see some very compelling law enforcement use-cases for aggregated cell phone meta-data. But I cannot support them as long as they are done in secret. A constitutionally established property right over the data solves that problem once and for all.
And finally, Big Tech in general… They can only become as “Big” as we find useful if the data originated on our devices and their networks belongs to us from birth to death.