We Will Own Our Own Identity
We have seen governments once again fail to hold Facebook to account. And many people have whittered on about it. Amongst the mass of relevant questions, and painfully irrelevant ones, we should consider whether we’re ok with not owning our data.
If Facebook and Google can make business on our data, then it’s not really our data, is it? Many people have been concerned about this as well. However, what many have overlooked but should have emphasised is just how intertwined our identities are with our data. So if we don’t own our data, can we really own ourselves?
The extent of how much data informs a person’s identity is far greater than just “he likes this” or “she follows that.” A while back the Verge’s senior editor Casey Newton wrote an article on an app. The app, called Roman Mazurenko, is an avatar of a deceased entrepreneur named Roman Mazurenko that his mourning friends developed. By gathering his old text messages and stringing them with algorithms, they produced an AI that wrote with his voice. It’s a memorial for the dead, like an upgraded version of the plaque you find on commemorative statues. Or it’s the social media version of Frankenstein’s monster. Either way, you can now interact with it and learn about Mazurenko through his own words. Even though Roman Mazurenko has died, his legacy is still available for free in the app store.
The app required data and it couldn’t have been completed without the contribution of Mazurenko’s friends and family. Friends and family, though, are one thing. However, huge corporations are built from buying and selling similar sets of data. Now companies can use those sets of data to build and sell people’s identities — they have already recreated identities for deceased actorsand dead Twitter accounts. In that case, the ownership of data becomes an issue about the ownership of one’s own identity. Just imagine what the world would be like if Facebook owned Roman Mazurenko.
(Screenshot from the digital avatar app of Roman Mazurenko)
So the American government’s farcical inquire and the British government’s inability to even question Zuckerberg should worry us. Not just because there was a data leak which might have influenced politics. Or for the reason that our confidence in the platform has been shaken. Rather we should be terrified by the prospect that in the new knowledge economy we don’t even own our own identity. The failure to wrest any real transparency from Facebook just allows the situation to continue and worsen. If a company can currently sell these bits of data off, what’s to stop them from one day reanimating our digital identities? If they own our data, they own us. So we’ve now uploaded our identity to a company with the address 1 Hacker Way. How trustworthy does that really sound?
So what’s to be done?
For one thing, the European Union will implement the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) later this month. This directive demands higher penalties, clear consent forms, mandatory breach notifications and specific protection for children. The actual power of this directive is in its scope. It applies to everyone with an EU citizenship, regardless of their residence. This is pretty brilliant. Both because it should help us going forwards and because it shows that a governing institution can actually stand up for its people.
The new regulations will makes things more difficult for us as well as for these large corporations. Rights include responsibilities, which is always a hassle. Typically we try to sign away our ownership so that we don’t have to deal with these problems. But it is worth taking things more slowly to slow down a company’s attempts to gather our digital identities.
So while our technology and culture drives us to endless disruption, we might still need our institutions. For all it’s aspirations to be a global community, Facebook is really a global power. The difference is that as a community Facebook doesn’t have to listen to individuals, but as a power it must deal with individual communities. As with Mazurenko, individually we’re just scattered data points, but amassed we have a significant identity. Let’s keep it ours.