Who gets to take advantage of everyone’s data? The undeniable answer brought by the last decade is Google. Facebook. Big Tech and its proposal to harvest all of it, in exchange for further and further convenience.
It was that pleasing feeling of meaningful speed, a convenient method to search for real answers, the revelation that truth was a lot more granular and within reach than we ever thought possible; arguably the reason why we didn’t mind they hoarded excessive amount of personal information. Giving a little bit of me in exchange for the world’s information felt like a bargain.
So what happens when big tech is just not convenient anymore?
I used to find Google and Facebook useful, or at least entertaining. But lately there is a sinking feeling: I am more or less coerced into using them. Much like a central banker in ’08, it seems the consequences of just stopping are too high. Which is different from being able to find real value in them. After years of becoming powerful engines of learning and growth, slowly but surely they became monopolies. As a result we are now collectively burdened, and have less freedom in an increasingly less fair playing field.
But let me switch perspectives for a second. Would you do differently if you were them? If you had a fiduciary obligation to make the most of the resources you have at your disposal, and if the legal and consumer advocacy consequences were massively outweighed by the potential revenues, would you decide any differently? One can go one step further into their existential justification: Data was thought to have some value, but it was only thanks to the “Mangaf” (Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Apple, Facebook) that humanity realized the actual value of personal data.
Many organizations, by means of external pressure, mere coincidence, or ethics, have chosen to stay away. Which is not really a choice, but rather a perennial strugle. Google is not the root cause of the problem. It is just another iteration of issue stemming from power imbalances that have plagued humankind, likely even before humans were a thing. There’s hierarchies in the animal kingdom, and a whole field (Social ethology) devoted to its study. Concerns about the role of mass media in how people see the world, think and buy have been with us for a long time. Only recently I came across 1973’s Television Delivers People, where a soothing stream underscores statements of powerlessness, that I thought were made up as battle anthems against just Facebook “The advertiser is the customer.” “It is the consumer who is consumed.” “Television is the prime instrument for the management of consumer demands.” And so on.
Is it so bad that Google harvest all our data?
This is a very hard question to answer, if you intend to appear as neutral as possible. You still need to choose a set of principles, none of which are based on any kind of natural law.
- You think privacy is a human right. Then you probably think Google bad. But there are a few technical issues to answer: Do you also have rights to the metadata collected by your specific interaction with Google products? If your privacy is sacred, can Google still profit from using personal, but not identifiable data? (Assuming we can tell the difference).
- You think it’s up to each individual to decide how much of their data to be accessed by Google. There is still a host of technical questions: To which extent should Google detail the data it has collected (and generated) about you?
- You think your data is your asset, so you should choose how to leverage it, and through which system. This focuses on the complicated assumption that before “Mangaf” your data wasn’t as valuable. Yes, the practice of micro-targeting has been exploited, mostly for advertising purposes. But could there be cases where micro-targeting has a social value? Put another way, if my oponent uses social media manipulation to achieve their goal, should I denounce him or learn their ways?
There is arguably a more elementary question about data, privacy and big tech innovation: Would Google be impeded to deliver whatever amount of “value” it can or has, if it didn’t have such repository of personal data? Is privacy a nagging hurdle in the march of progress? The question, again, hinges on subjective beliefs. (Hence the quotes.) In terms of stakeholder value, the answer is a hard-to-argue yes. This is also the easiest definition of the term. Taking a broader look to ponder whether Google can make people’s lives better without such indiscriminate data collection practices, simply does not lend itself to such a straightforward conclusion.
Granular-level personal data collection by poorly personalized products
One thing is clear. Regardless of the set of principles you chose (or were imposed on you), Google’s data collection practices are indiscriminate. Every Google initiative, from search to Maps, to Fi (internet provision) to Google.org, there is a sharp data collection edge. What for? The products aren’t getting unmistakably better in proportional measure to the amount of data collected. It reminds me of the height of the NSA outcries, where employees who happened to be disgruntled manchildren took advantage of the most sophisticated surveillance apparatus the world has ever known, to get back at their exes; while failing to prevent a guy to land with his gyrocopter on the White House lawn, despite documenting his plans at length in his personal blog. (By the way, he did it to raise awareness of campaign finance corruption.)
So here’s and argument: Regardless of how much data it gathers (and how secret it’s meant to be), most of Google’s product just aren’t that good. The personal data harvesting thing is a recurrent, but by no means the only complaint made about the “Mangaf.” It is also (mostly?) about the complacency of power in lawlessness.
NSA’s PRISM and CO-TRAVELLER were outlawed, but not Google’s Sensorvault, amassing decades of device geolocations
Once known by authorities, Sensorvault has been the subject of a growing number of “geofence warrants,” in which Google provides detailed information on devices who appeared located within an geographical boundary at a certain frame of time. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Without a way to filter out culprits, Google ends up providing details about suspect’s phones, within a lake of innocence. Are Sensorvault’s services lawful? The Supreme Court already established that excessive access of phone records violates “legitimate expectations of privacy,” another tenet of the Fourth Amendment. The debate gets even more complicated when you take into account the toll exerted on innocent individuals by improper profiling through warrants. Putting aside the merits of Google being able to hold such massive volumes of physical locations (which, they argue, are voluntary and subject to the third-party doctrine), the question once again becomes on how to carry the Fourth Amendment into the 21st century. (If we should at all.)