By now anyone who follows the news should know about the storm that Facebook has found itself in after the revelations that user data may have been used to influence public opinion, especially around the US presidential elections.
We can spend hours discussing what happened, whose fault it was and what the real impact was, but I believe it sets the stage for a fundamental discussion of far greater scope.
There is no doubt we are living in the age of information: in fact, in the last two years we have collected more data than in the preceding 5,000 years. Data is collected when we surf the internet, login to our social media profiles or just browse for the latest pair of shoes online.
We create tonnes of data around who we are, what we are thinking about, and what we like. When the dots are connected this data can be used to predict our thoughts, actions and perhaps most troublesome− how we can be manipulated.
And let us just conclude: Anyone can be manipulated.
From a technical perspective all of this is extremely interesting, but technology is a double-edged sword. In our eagerness to be smarter we connect all of our devices from alarm clocks, toothbrushes to vacuum cleaners and of course smartphones and computers.
We are constantly delivering data. Everything from our latest binge-watching spree of a streamed TV-show, to the latest ‘like’ of a cute kitten on social media to our comment on a YouTube video on Twitter post — it is all data about who you are, which combined paints a very detailed picture of you.
The price for using these services is handing over intimate knowledge about ourselves to mega-corporations that have a deep-rooted impact of how we live our lives today and even how we think. In fact, I would claim that no one knows us better then these companies who have grown to be regarded as the most valuable in the world by collecting, analysing and using our data.
As an average person with nothing to hide, I am concerned that all of this data is being actively collected by commercial organisations for their own gains. The data they collect allows them to deliver the most efficient advertisement apparatus ever known to mankind.
To some extent, I can accept this, as, after all, these services are free. But the data can also be used in a wrong way to sway public opinion, directions of societies and even individual decisions. Should this power and data really be in the hands of specific private organisations, with only limited oversight? And are they aware of the responsibility they have when collecting all of this data?
Could I not just delete my Facebook account like the millions of users who did so in the last week? Yes, of course that is an option, but social media is part of my life, and to be fair, these services allow me to stay in touch with my friends and relatives all over the world in a way which just ten years ago was unthinkable. I really do not want to live without it.
The other issue is that it does not really matter if I shut down my profile! They probably already have enough data on me to profile me — but the real problem arises when data from the billions of people who will not shut down their profiles is abused — they are my fellow citizens who will greatly impact the world me and my children grow up in. I really do not want their opinion or actions to be controlled by some ulterior motive manipulated to the masses.
My major concern is actually not Facebook — they are fully aware that if we leave their businessfold, we will see strong messaging, changes to their operations as well as government oversight starting to come into effect over the coming months. But there are hundreds if not thousands of services on the internet whose business model is to collect data about you and selling it on to third party organisations. How are they controlled? And can they even be controlled?
I really hope all of this will be a wake-up call, first and foremost, to lawmakers, governments and privacy watchdogs, who need to start thinking about how these organisations can be controlled and maybe more importantly how data can be misused and how we protect against this.
I hope it is a wake-up call to all of the data-hoarders out there that they should be much more transparent in how they use data and not hide true intent in long “terms and conditions” legal language that no one reads anyway.
It is also a wake-up call to the established press to stay vigilant, deliver proper messaging and stay trustworthy. Hats off to those who broke the story and those who are spending time on covering it.
And most importantly it is a wake-up call for all of us. You, me and everyone who has made the decision to use the internet and the services it offers. We need to understand that we are living in a different time. Not all news may be real news and the messenger could potentially be manipulating us.
We have a tremendous responsibility in starting to think critically about content — what is right or wrong to avoid a corruption of society.
— The writer is the Chief Technology Officer at Help AG.