A quest to be noticed but not to be watched
There were times when people were aware of the surveillance by secret service agencies, like NSA, and they complied with the idea because it was for the greater benefit and security of all the citizens. It felt safe under such authorized circumstances. But today, the scenario is contradictory — the system is opaque and non-consenting. Private affairs have become a tool for mathematicians, statisticians, psychologists and marketers to create a juggernaut of open hacking culture.
Being a mathematician herself, Cathy O’Neil points out in her book, Weapons of Math Destruction, how mathematicians and statisticians are studying our desires, movements and spending power and calculating our trustworthiness and potentials through algorithms. At first, we are unknowingly monitored to understand our behaviors and practices and then, this very data is fed into a database to lure us into the tactics of the trade. It has become almost impossible for anyone to go offline due to ubiquitous presence of devices, services, RFID tags etc., embedded in places we would never notice, that work 365 X 24 X 7 to hunt you down and evaluate your actions.
The plethora of devices that we consider to be aiding our lives in various ways are actually a trap creating links between our age, home address, credit history, purchase history, browsing history, movements around the globe, to reveal details that we might otherwise have chosen to keep secret. As Alice E. Marwick explains in her article, How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined,
NSA’s collection of the personal information and the digital activities of millions of people across the world have attracted immense attention and public concern. But there are equally troubling and equally opaque systems run by advertising, marketing, and data-mining firms that are far less known.
For example, companies are increasingly offering loyalty cards to customers as a way to benefit them with discounts, they actually create algorithms to determine the purchase habits and predict needs. Online shopping industry also mines browsing data and targets users by their behavior patterns. This behavioral targeting is now slowly moving in favor of predictive targeting wherein algorithms predict for the companies the likeliness of the user to buy a certain product and decide what to advertise to the user.
Ever wondered why Amazon keeps showing you products you bought in the past? Or how come a website you were browsing on your laptop started showing you ads on your phone? How does Google know about your travel plans as soon as you booked the tickets? How does Facebook decide what I’d like to see in my news feed? As Eli Pariser explained in his TED talk, we are living in a world of Filter bubbles that analyze our interests and decide our content for us accordingly. But what is appalling is that these services never ask for permissions to access personal information, the model is opaque. How unfair is it to be living in a cocoon of limited information? With advancing times, matters are becoming tougher to answer. It is very difficult to map out whether the implications are optimistic or dyadic.
The users of social media on the other hand, especially teenagers, have a completely different take on the privacy aspect. The Frontline show on PBS, Generation Like, reveals the inclinations of youngsters towards social popularity. The infectious dependence on likes, tweets and followers is defining the changing definition of self-empowerment for the teens. These social currencies give them identity and centrality in their world. But how informed are they about the deeper strategies involved at manipulating and using them for their own benefits? Social media has become a seamless blend of marketing, media and everyday life. The companies are exploiting its users in subtle ways. Every page you like, every post you retweet, and picture you share not only benefits the company monetarily but also shapes up your identity through algorithms which is sold to many more agencies. These companies then create models to use you not only as a consumer of marketing agency but also as an ambassador.
There are eagle eyes monitoring every move we make throughout our daily lives that lives in a database. This information from one source flows to the other without our knowledge or consent. For activities that we believe are going unnoticed, may not be so. We are online even we don’t want to be. While majority of people seek to maintain their privacy as much as they can, the technology has made it nearly impossible to stay off the radar. What does it take to lead a secluded life today? Apparently, we DO NOT have a choice. In conclusion, according to Cathy O’Neil,
There are three elements of Weapons of Math Destruction; Opacity, Scale and Damage. The scoring algorithm is hidden. They represent dangerous species that are primed to grow, perhaps exponentially. But the point is not whether some benefit, it’s that so many suffer.
- Alice Marwick, “How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined, New York Review of Books, January 9, 2014
- Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction