Craven: Data Mining And Democracy

Apr 9, 2018

I remember a conversation I had, one August afternoon forty years ago, with my part-time neighbor, the late Richard Barnet, who worked in JFK’s State Department and co-founded Washington’s Institute for Policy Studies.

I’d read Barnet’s book, Global Reach that identified trends by multinational corporations, including the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs to countries with cheaper labor and tax breaks.

“What’s next?” I asked Barnet. “What’s going to replace our lost American productivity? What'll we make that we can sell?”

“Information,” said Barnet.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“You will,” he said.

All these years later - now I do “get it” - especially after recent disclosures that Facebook sold personal information on 87 million Americans to Cambridge Analytica – so the company could create psychological profiles of likely voters, to assist candidate Trump’s campaign.

Politicians have weighed in on Facebook’s privacy breach, and Congress is holding hearings. But, just a couple of months after President Trump took office, this same Congress passed a bill giving Internet Service Providers the right to sell our personal data – to anyone. This includes data on websites we visit, items we purchase, articles we read - you name it.

These data buyers can then theoretically project our political beliefs, income levels, sexual practices, religious leanings, and health problems – information that could be used to spike our insurance rates, deny us a job, gerrymander a district, and more.

Added to this, The New York Times recently revealed that digital assistants like Alexa can not only hear what’s going on in your home - at least some of the time - but that Amazon and Google have applied for patents to give them even more ability to sniff out sounds through all kinds of devices, to monitor conversations and detect moods, breathing rates, medical conditions and more.

It’s easy to imagine how such information control could help foster a new kind of authoritarianism. The fine film, The Lives of Others, portrayed a much less sophisticated technology that really was used to intimidate, arrest, and blackmail people in totalitarian East Germany.

Indeed, some argue that this information mining violates our fourth amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

With the lucrative data mining market just getting started, Facebook’s Zuckerberg may be one of the first tech giants to appear before Congress, but it's a virtual certainty he won't be the last.