When shopping online or “liking” something on Facebook, we give away our identity and privacy to gigantic data banks. This collective data offers great potential for humanity. But also raises numerous threats to which we must be alert. This is the first of a series of ten articles on the risks of the “Digital Revolution”.
Author: Joana Gonçalves-Sá – head of the Data Science & Policy group
I go to the movies with my daughter. A father, sitting in front of us, is using his mobile phone, absent-minded, while his five-year-old tries to interact with him. The session begins and they ask us to switch off our phones. This father remains connected and, during the 45 minutes of the session, doesn’t look up from his small screen, ignoring the big one in the background. He browses through football news and checks his Facebook and Instagram. Like any other addiction, this one is very profitable and I think about how valuable this father is, probably without even realizing it.
About 70% of the Portuguese population has access to the Internet and many connect to it through their mobile phones. These “smartphones” help us to wake up in the morning and to inform our children that we are going to arrive exactly 17 minutes late because there is an accident two kilometers away. They count how many steps we have taken, recognize our voice, store our family photos, and remind us to congratulate our friends for their birthday. Clock, alarm, recorder, calendar, camera, map, bank, taxi service, notepad, everything in my pocket.
This is possible because these little phones are filled with sensors and have more capacity and memory than the machines that took us to the moon. They keep millions and millions of “micro-data” that can then be sent to others. All these data, whether it is our step count or other behavior, leaves traces: the so called digital breadcrumbs that we leave every time we are online. It is thanks to these crumbs, which we share freely, that Google Maps can help us find the fastest route home. It is also thanks to them that we can start thinking about designing cities that are smarter, more efficient, and safer.
There are many texts and shows that describe the benefits and promises of the so-called “Digital Revolution”. But every revolution has a darker side, and this is definitely the case with this one. If facial recognition systems allow us to navigate faster through airports, they can also make it easier for citizens to be controlled. If the supermarket loyalty cards allow us to save money on our items, it also make us more susceptible to manipulation.
Unfortunately, this not-so-bright side is typically overlooked or even ignored by experts. Only large-scale scandals, such as the Cambridge Analytica accusation of using Facebook to influence elections, make us about the risks of our online activity. This is not new in our history: we do not know the future and we tend to remedy more than to prevent.
Take, for example, the Industrial Revolution. It would be dramatic to have to return to a period without telecommunications, fast transport networks, or the mechanized production that we have today. But this growth has also brought labor exploitation and pollution to levels that were never thought possible. This shock was mitigated by legislation, but it took decades and the death of many children until laws to regulate child labor emerged. And it took almost two centuries until it was truly banned in Europe.
It is interesting to read some of the arguments against this legislation, at the time, given by the owners of large companies: adults do not fit in the mine tunnels; adapting all our factory machines to big hands will lead to bankruptcy of the country itself; it is the only way to ensure that children do not starve. Almost 200 years later, we continue to hear arguments of very similar content, but now from the great digital monopolies, like Facebook or Google: we do more good than bad; eating these crumbs without paying is the only way to function; it is impossible to survive without us. This is the resistance of companies that know many aspects of our lives and that have higher value than many countries, acting like true world leaders, who were never scrutinized or elected.
The other leaders, the politicians, have also realized the potential of artificial intelligence (AI). According to Vladimir Putin: “AI is the future, not only for Russia but for all Humanity (…). Whoever becomes a leader in this sphere will rule the world.” China hopes to be the leader by 2030 and is already designing large-scale social experiments, which involve classifying citizens according to their social behavior, which is only possible thanks to facial recognition technology sold in part by Microsoft. It is no coincidence that so many references are made to Orwell’s 1984, but of course there are differences. One is that the surveillance mechanisms are bought by us, and we voluntarily take them everywhere.
Does this mean that we should turn off our phones, computers and tablets? Certainly not, and in part because that would not be enough to assure protection. For example, the data we provide on our Facebook page is sufficient to be able to extrapolate on tastes and preferences of our friends who are not even part of this social network. But more importantly, these technologies and knowledge result from an accumulation of millennia of human evolution and, like those brought by the Industrial Revolution, they may and should be used to improve our lives. However, we will have to make difficult decisions and we need to be informed if we want to make the right choices.
10 months and 10 articles
Over the next few months we will describe and discuss some of the possible darker side of this revolution. We will begin by explaining the so-called recommendation systems (or what supermarket points are for) and then discuss how current legislation (does not) protect us. In the weeks that follow, we will see if we should cover our phone’s camera, how to deal with health data, and how to identify fake news. We will offer information and practical tips, while also addressing issues of principle and ethical values. The goal is to help us think about the world not as it exists today, but as we would like it to be. Because the future is decided now.