Sometimes I wonder at what point commercial algorithms figured out my wife and I were pregnant. A number of companies certainly knew about it before our son was born but I think many learned about it far earlier. About six months in we received a large “free” sampling of formula and pamphlets from a producer. A few months before that we were the targets of physical mailing campaigns advertising the benefits of prenatal vitamins and shakes. But I think it was earlier still. Soon after my wife and I started texting each other our plans, anxieties, hopes I think they knew. As soon as we spread the word to our extended family via Facebook and social media that’s when, early on, some variable in some database was triggered and we were slotted into the great milking funnel of soon-to-be parents.
And no wonder, the entire niche of birthing and raising an entirely new human is incredibly lucrative. There’s formula, diapers, clothes, vitamins, books, toys, and a host of other products to buy over a long period of time. Like most people, parents settle into the brands they are comfortable with. And many times the brands we stick with are the first ones we try. So once you, as a business, acquire a new customer you can bring them back over and over again; especially if your product is disposable…like formula or diapers. You will have families returning to buy your products for years. So the race is on to acquire new parents as early along in the process as possible. The sooner you can identify who falls into this category the sooner you can step in and intervene to woo them over to your products.
This article isn’t about parenting and it isn’t about business. The anecdote of my experience serves only to provide one example of my point: You are being spied upon.
Social giants: The beast of Facebook
This past week Mark Zuckerberg went in front of Congress. Not much was resolved. He apologized for appearing so naive. This performance was a rehash of previous episodes where Facebook’s policies have caused individual pain, it’s just the latest and greatest of them.
But what’s the big deal that Facebook has our information, haven’t we given it all away freely? Since we agreed to the terms of service don’t they have the right to use that data?
The alternative to having this platform be free and open is to have it as some kind of paid service. We don’t want to pay. We expect our internet to be an open place for everyone. We’d rather just go back to using MySpace.
Why it’s such a big deal :
- Facebook can track you even if you have opted out. They are gathering sensitive data that you might not even be aware of…for example biometric information by tracking your eyes from your iphone’s camera and recording your personal calls;
- They are using this data to influence our decisions. Some people are using this data to track and harass, even kill, ethnic minorities;
- They are providing this data to other entities that we do not know about. They have not cared that this data has been sold to other parties that should not be privy to it. This is against the law;
- And because they control the data, the means of data acquisition, and the platform to make using that data actionable they have significant power.
“Facebook can learn almost anything about you by using artificial intelligence to analyze your behavior,” said Peter Eckersley, the chief computer scientist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit. “That knowledge turns out to be perfect both for advertising and propaganda. Will Facebook ever prevent itself from learning people’s political views, or other sensitive facts about them?” Source
You know, I really hate to keep beating a downed zuckerberg, but to the extent that expensive patents indicate corporate intent and direction —
Come along for a ride, and let’s browse a few of Facebook’s recent U.S.P.T.O. patent applications…
— Jeremy Ashkenas (@jashkenas) April 4, 2018
Google + Amazon: A system for identifying speakers in a conversation and building interest profiles for them. For example, it would find out that you and your brother are separate people, then figure out you love skateboarding while he loves skiing (better ad targeting)
— Dylan Curran (@iamdylancurran) April 11, 2018
These companies harvest vast quantities of data about our lives. They have the capacity to analyze it and the platforms to use it.
Coming to an employer near you
The desire to know more about you and track your movements is extending to our workplaces and will be available for use by non-tech employers.
Why this could be great
- Safer workplaces could be made as employers can know whether their employers are wearing prescribed safety equipment. They can monitory dangerous areas (e.g. construction sites) in real time and intervene before fatal accidents;
- Faster turnover of bad employees. Problematic or inefficient employees can be removed faster thus saving the company money on training and loss of revenue from burned customers;
- Fairer pay. Promotions and salary could be more fairly distributed. Instead of the boss’s nephew receiving most of the Christmas bonus these annual sums could be divided based on work output collected, analyzed, and determined by an algorithm. This is especially true for pay between men and women.
Why this could be a terrible
- Algorithms are biased. They may condemn older workers who can’t produce enough widgets fast enough. They may penalize the poor for living further away from the office. They might not know about an individual’s developmental disorder that causes them to (rarely) lash out at rude customers;
- People don’t want to be tracked. Having your every keystroke reviewed by a manager is anxiety-inducing for many of us.
Employers might have to start using these methods to stay competitive. A construction company that monitors individual workers output for quality and safety while promoting the most efficient men and women is more likely to succeed that one that does not. Other construction companies could start looking at the techniques of their new AI-enabled competitor and wonder why they’re having such success. The envious company might then feel compelled to hire an AI contractor to monitor their own workers to reap the same benefits.
As a form of state power
There’s a picture I think about often. It’s of Tiananmen Square in Bejing, China.
The same square wherein 1989 an exhausted man stood in front of several rolling tanks until they stopped. He kept standing in front of them impeding their progress for minutes. A single man halted a column of war machines. It’s truly inspiring.
That’s not the photo I’m thinking about.
The photo I’m thinking about has regular citizens outlined in information boxes as they walk down the street. I don’t know Mandarin but I know this is personal information relevant to each citizen.
The algorithms the Chinese government is deploying in their street cameras identifies and tracks individuals as they make their way about the city. It identifies vehicles and the license plate on those vehicles and by extension can make educated guesses about who is riding in those vehicles.
With this information, the state can paint a portrait of your life. Knowing where you are and at what time and with whom the state can piece together if you really are working where you say you work. They can figure out your relative level of fitness, the kinds of people you associate with, your political leanings. They can reasonably place where you are and what you’re doing for a significant amount of time.
They can more effectively intimidate and harass. They can control.
Privacy strikes back
The Facebook scandal has struck a nerve with the public. People are talking about their private data the this company’s role in their lives.
Hopefully, it will drive demand for stricter privacy law. Regulation of the industry might not prove too bad an idea either. In America, we look back on the gilded age and are glad a strong president, Theodore Roosevelt, fought the entrenched interests of the oil barons. It’s a shame we don’t have such a leader today.
Further reading: I found this and this article helpful in understanding the costs of what’s occurred with the Facebook fallout.