The Art of [User] Misdirection
French Philosopher Paul Vilirio wrote “The invention of the ship was the invention of the shipwreck”; this, likely, will be the allegory of our time. The Dot-Com boom of the 1990’s delivered unprecedented access to a global network of information, and with it, an unprecedented blow to the Silicon Valley start-ups that had become profitable by monetizing web-based technologies.
At its inception, Google promised an ad-free search engine, and was not shy about the data they were saving from search queries. The Google Headquarters famously featured a monitor that listed real-time searches from users around the world. But faced with the corporate identity crisis of the World Wide Web, Google analysts discovered that the years of stored search histories, when combined with the computational power of the Google servers, could predict a piece of future human behavior — where was someone likely to click.
Traditional advertising, until that point, involved deploying a message on a billboard or banner-ad, and hoping that it made its way to the right people. Google, instead, could now package and sell their black-box computational software as a product that can predict this one small, but significant piece of human behavior.
As we have become increasingly reliant on the internet for day-to-day life, our online “clicks” have become increasingly associated with our offline activities. Today, the most powerful tech companies have built their empires on the sale of black-box analytic products that deliver a mathematical certainty of what each user is likely to do now, soon and in the future; this kind of Information Capitalism relies heavily on users to offer their data without a full awareness of how predictive spurious pieces of information can be — particularly when funneled through the black-boxes layered beneath corporate hard-drives; for instance, consider the 2012 case of a father who was alerted to his teenage daughter’s pregnancy vis-a-vis Target’s advertising platform that mailed congratulatory prenatal coupons to their home, based on the daughters’ browsing and purchase history.
The last year, in particular, has sparked legitimate questions about standards for privacy within these companies. Facebook and Uber have settled multiple cases with the Federal Trading Commission for their mismanagement of user data; corporate giants in every major US industry were affected by data breaches in 2018, including (but not limited to) Google+, LinkedIn, Verizon Wireless, British Airways, TicketMaster, and Marriott Hotels.
Perhaps the most notorious of recent examples was that of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, after reports surfaced that 87 million Facebook Users’ data had been used in an alleged attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Such scandals are often described as “data breaches”. It’s easy to assume that the term “breach” refers to a bug in a product’s security software, or some other hacker-driven malfeasance. In reality, such events result from some combination of misunderstanding, and the strategic use of fine-print in user agreements.
Indeed, the mathematical certainty of changing of users’ behavior, in an election or elsewhere, is the primary currency of Silicon Valley. This particular scandal may never have risen to public attention, had the data not been used by a political consulting firm, amidst a tumultuous election, while still employing a whistleblower willing to speak out in this particular use case.
This behavioral currency we provide in the form of searches and likes — or, as author Shoshanna Zuboff describes it in her book of the same name “Surveillance Capitalism” — relies on our data. US legislators have only recently begun to consider regulating the industry, and efforts by the UK have received significant pushback by tech companies in the United States.
You can learn more about how to identify the apps and websites with which you’ve shared your information and how to disable it where you’d like — In Tech Tips: Find your Facebook Data, and Tech Tips: Find your Google Data, we provide a quick 2-3 step guide to find and control the personal data that you’ve shared on each platform.