From Big Data to Big Brother –Do we finally loose the control of our data?
In 1983 a single topic triggered the most intense discussion across the West German society: the scheduled population census. Every household in the country was supposed to fill out a questionnaire with 36 questions on the housing situation, the people living in the household, and their personal income. Hundreds of citizens‘ initiatives throughout the country expressed their deepest concern and massively resisted against the census. The people did not want information about them stored somewhere, the private sphere was considered sacred. There was (legitimate) concern that the answers to the anonymous questionnaires allowed to pinpoint the identity of the respondents. The Federal Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs: The census violated data protection laws as well as the constructional right of the German citizens. It was therefore stopped.
Only a generation later, we carelessly give out the supermarket chain’s bonus card each time we shop in order to collect a few loyalty points for a gift or a discount on the next purchase. We thereby know very well that the supermarket tracks our consumption behavior down to the last detail. What we do not know is who else gets to see this data. Buyers of it not only gain access to our purchases, but can also use those to determine our habits, personal preferences and income. Just as carelessly we surf in the internet, google and shop, email and chat. Facebook,Google, and Microsoft are not just watching all of this, they are forever storing everything we say, what we buy, and what we are looking for, and use all that for their own purposes. They look through our e-mails, know about our personal time management, our current location, our political, religious and sexual preferences (who does not know the button „interested in men“ or „interested in women“?), our closest friends we are connected with online, our relationship status, which school we visit or visited, and much more.
Most of us do not care about the many trails they leave in the global data room. Others have become more prudent by damage and try to keep their digital footprint small. Stories about Facebook users who have not gotten an offer for a much desired job because the human resources department found embarrassing old photos on the Internet have made them more cautious. But it is not enough to limit direct access to our personal data. Even those who deliberately avoid Google, Amazon, Facebook, and e-mail services, avoid credits card and pay in cash without using a payback card, do not desire to experience erotic adventures on the internet, see information about themselves leak out. Because everyone needs a health insurance, a bank account, a special security and tax number. Driving on the highway or walking in the streets, means you are being recorded in one form or the other. It is for example common to install an Internet connection in new cars, including the software which registers at any time where one went by car, with what speed one drove and whether one parked legally.
At the top of the list of „traitors“ revealing our most private secrets is the smartphone. There are the millions of apps, the small and discreet software packages that we load onto our smartphone with just one click and which then have their own online lives there. They are the result of immeasurable human creativity and provide lots of fun to their users by steering their playing instincts or fuel their thirst for knowledge. And how much easier is life with these small helpers every day. But who ever asks why most apps come for free? We simply pay by other means: with our personal information. In addition, much of the data that is collected about us, we do not even know it exists. E-books are popular, as they are cheaper than print editions, and one does not have to drag bulky, heavy books around. Amazon also enjoys e-books: the firm knows exactly how fast we read them, which pages we find particularly interesting, and which ones we skip. So, as we read the book, the book also reads us. How else is Amazon able to send us all these suggestions, which although often being annoying surprisingly often meet our taste spot on?
All that data is stored, processed and sold. These mountains of information are „the oil of the 21st century“. And we are giving this valuable stuff to Google, Facebook and Co. (or even the supermarket chain) for no more than a few videos on YouTube or virtual hangouts (or 1% shopping bonuses) – just like the Native Americans in the 16th century, who exchanged entire islands for a few glass beads with the European invaders.
Meanwhile, the gathering of data on our electronic devices is almost an old hat compared to the latest monitoring and data collection technologies. These suck up data on everything we say and do at locations and by devices that we consider completely unsuspicious. Here are just a few examples for these new spying devices that come with more and more intelligent software:
- The cameras and high-frequency microphones installed in Xbox game stations constantly send sound and images to the data servers of their manufacturers. From this data Microsoft is able to determine the players’ speed of reaction and learning ability. Even their emotional states are „scanned“: The box can detect whether the player is sad or happy, whether he or she grimaces or looks bored.
- Internet-enabled TVs have a built-in camera so their owners can for example skype. Anyone who hacks into this electronic eye is able to observe what is happening in the private living room. That this is no exaggeration shows a release of Wikileaks in March 2017: Under the code name „Weeping Angel“ the CIA had tried to hack smart TVs from Samsung since 2013 in order to switch it into a mode that suggests the user he switched off the TV –while it is in fact still on and collects data about what is happening in the apartment.
- In 2015, Google bought „Nest“ for several billion dollars – a small, then only five-year-old company that sells no more than two products. One of them is an intelligent smoke detector with a camera. Among other things, it recognizes how many people are in which rooms for how long and can send these data directly to Google. Meanwhile, there is Google’s Smart Speaker, a flower-vase-like device that uses speech recognition to control home appliances, regulate heating, or order food online. Even if we do not talk to the software, the microphones are constantly on. And then there is the vacuum cleaner „Roomba“: It does not only collect dust, but also piles of data about our home, which it can easily transfer to its manufacturer.
- In February 2017, the German Federal Network Agency withdrew the children’s doll „My Friend Cayla“ – due to the risk of surveillance. The doll was suitable for secretly recording images and sound, and strangers with some technical knowledge were able to access it and talk directly with the childrenthrough the doll. The agency’s official rationale: „Items that hide cameras or microphones and thus can pass data unnoticed endanger people’s privacy. That also applies to children’s toys. „
- In 2016, a consumer sued the manufacturer of a vibrator that via an app had collected highly intimate data about the use of the masturbation device.
Google already knows every detail of our „whereabouts“ in the digital space of the Internet. The step to being able to follow our movements in the physical space is not far off. And in all of this, Google hardly feels bound by local privacy standards, but acts, if at all, by U.S. ones. And they are as lax as nowhere else in the Western world. In fact, data protection is hardly regulated by law in the United States. There is not even a comprehensive independent data protection authority. And the minimum standards apply only to citizens of the US, and not to data coming from abroad. For the latter everything is allowed. One may confidently assume that also the secret service NSA makes use of this data.
Indeed, the government is just as greedy for our data as the companies. Using „presence technology“ it wants to determine whether, at what time and at what place a user can be reached on which online service (smartphone, e-mail, instant messaging, Facebook, etc.). In addition, cameras in major cities and main traffic axes constantly record our movements(as it has for long been a reality in London). Unmanned flying objects far above us (or soon insect-sized drones in our immediate vicinity) measure each of our steps. Once the European navigation system Galileo is operational (probably in 2020), which is ten times more accurate than the American system GPS, satellites can detect what type of sausage we are barbecuing in our backyard. With the appropriate software for facial and image recognition, the real-time creation of movement profiles of individual people is no longer a technical problem. Using corresponding algorithms, it is even possible to read their emotions. With all this information about our internet presence, our physical whereabouts, as well as our emotional well-beingwe give ever more intelligent algorithms and their owners plenty of material to monitor – and eventually manipulate – us.
The following examples show that all this is not the mere result of a hysterical reaction from some left-wing civil rights groups, and that in fact the government spying on us goes even much further. In Great Britain, a program of the British secret service was revealedin 2015 which, under the name „Karma Police“, collects and processes the communication behavior of all internet users within (and partly outside) the United Kingdom. Its goals is to record every visited website of every user. And European governments are not far behind in this field: In 2014 the European research project INDECT (intelligent information system supporting observation, searching and detection for security of citizens in urban environment) ran out. In the expected real use of such a system, its main objective will be to link the data from many different sources, including social media, and automatically investigate it for possible „dangers“ and „abnormal behavior of individuals“. „Crime detection and prevention“ is the keyword of this project. The argument behind such activities is always the same: It is all for our security, so that we can live a free and self-determined life. The irreproachable citizen has nothing to fear. Would a world in which we were no longer threatened by criminals, terrorists or reckless people because of the authorities‘ full awareness of them not be a paradise on earth? Governments promise security and protection and take part of our freedom for it: this is a millennium-old game, today played with the technological infrastructure of the 21st century.
The extent to which spying and control can take over public life can be seen in China, where personal data protection and civil rights do not meet any (of today’s) Western standards. The Chinese government has announced that by 2020 it will introduce what is calls a “Citizen’s Score”. Information about tax honesty, traffic behavior, personal income, but also political opinions, consumption and hobbies of every citizen will be transformed into a point system. Those who fall short of achieving a certain point value because they were on the wrong websites or have the wrong friends on Facebook are excluded from certain jobs or find themselves limited in their range of movement. A high point value on the other hand provides rewards such as easier access to visas or admittance to a good school for the kids. Particularly effective is that system in that the scores of friends on social media are part of the equation determining a person’s score. If a dissident is among them, the own score slips immediately and it becomes more difficult, for example, to let the children study. This generates an effective social pressure to expel and isolate political deviants from the community.
In the Chinese market place we can already observe the functioning of such point systems: „Sesame Credit“ of the online shopping platform “Alibaba” assigns every customer a point value which is calculated from his or her surfing and consumer behavior on the Internet. Many Chinese appreciate this score as a confirmation of their own social status – whoever has many points, is a solvent (in reality a more loyal to Alibaba) consumer. The score assigned to them even affects the self-assessment of individuals: Hundreds of thousands are already bragging about their points in the social media and use them, among other things, on online dating sites to impress the opposite sex.
Such total data control possesses a terrifying dimension: the possibility of an exercise of total power. Will totalitarian and unscrupulous rulers soon possess such perfect surveillance and manipulation technologies that people would have no more chance to fight against them? Just imagine the German National Socialists in the 1930s or the Stasi in the GDR with this technology. Any resistance under such a technological empowered regime would have been completely hopeless. This is a dystopia that is far closer to us than most people can imagine. Except that it is no longer just the government snooping on us, but also profit-hungry companies.