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May 15 / Great Apes

Big Data Brother Is Watching You

By now you’ve probably heard about “Big Data”, the idea that by gathering massive amounts of information in computer databases and writing algorithms to sort through it we can gain objective insights into human behaviour and society in order to improve the way we function.  There are plenty of problems with this framework (such as, for example, the fact that algorithms can only look for what humans tell them to and thus begin with significant built-in biases that make them anything but objective) but those are discussed in many places and they’re not really what I’m interested in looking at right now.  I’ve read a couple of articles lately discussing some particular uses of “Big Data” that I think pose serious social and ethical challenges even if we could “fix” the algorithms to produce objectively correct information so that’s what I’m going to focus on.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about data surveillance and thinking about what it means for us as a society*.  We’re very quickly approaching a point at which virtually everything we do is being watched and recorded by someone or something, both in public and what we have traditionally considered “private”.  Almost everything that you do is being tracked or will probably be soon: what web sites you visit, how long it takes you to perform various tasks at work, how and where you drive your car, what options you choose in video game menus and how long you spend looking at them, your purchasing habits, and on and on.  And while I think there is increasing awareness of this fact (at least I hope there is), I don’t think there’s an awful lot of clarity about why exactly we should care about this beyond ambiguous (though still important) concerns about “privacy”.

Washington University law professor Neil Richards identifies two main causes for concern in this development in his paper plainly titled The Dangers Of Surveillance (it’s worth noting that Richards is talking about surveillance in general, including government surveillance, while I’m interested primarily in corporate surveillance).  The first is that, without what he calls “intellectual privacy”, people will begin to limit the thoughts that they feel comfortable expressing, which will hold back both personal and social growth.  The second is that constant surveillance distorts the power relationship between “watcher” and “watched” which he says enhances “the watcher’s ability to blackmail, coerce, and discriminate against the people under its’ scrutiny” (pg 3-4).  I think he’s correct on both counts, and I’m going to use a couple of recent developments in corporate data surveillance to explain exactly how these effects impact peoples’ lives in a concrete way.  One thing that really seems to be missing in a lot of discussions about surveillance is specific impacts on our lives, so I’m hoping to rectify that somewhat here.


A few recent trends and articles about them have got me thinking about this in more detail. The Associated Press has reported on the growing trend of potential employers asking applicants to provide Facebook passwords so that the employer can, if we’re being honest, spy on their private life.  Another story discusses credit start-ups who are using data from services such as your e-mail and social networking accounts to determine your credit-worthiness on the basis of things like the borrowing histories of your social networking acquaintances.  Then there’s the recruiting firm that uses its massive database full of information trawled from places as varied as Twitter and GitHub to put together profiles on tons of people, none of whom know they’re being tracked, in order to determine who to contact to make job offers to.

Some of this surveillance is performed with the knowledge of the person being spied on and some of it isn’t but the effects are likely to be similar either way.  While it may turn out to be the case that the specific examples I’ve cited will fail to catch on, the idea in general of this kind of surveillance is here to stay unless we take strong steps to counter them.  There are two significant issues with this situation that I’m going to take a look at.  The first is the way this constant state of surveillance will require people to alter their behaviour for the benefit of corporations which may want to hire or do business with them and the second is the disproportionate impact this will have on people from lower income groups.


The first problem with this kind of corporate surveillance of our private lives is the degree to which it allows corporations to control our behaviour outside of the workplace.  It has always been the case, for example, that you could be fired for saying something in public which your employer feels reflects poorly on the company.  It is only in the very recent past, however, that the possibility for making “public” statements has become so widely available.  In the past your options were very limited: you might be interviewed as a woman-on-the-street for a TV news program or maybe you’d write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.  These were very limited opportunities and they had a very short shelf-life; the odds of anyone making any attempt to find out what you’d said in passing on some television show a few years ago were virtually nil unless you were a prominent public figure.  Now, however, a significant amount of our interactions and activities are essentially public in nature, from Twitter to blog posts to comments on web communities we frequent and all sorts of other similar venues.  These social interactions are, to a large degree, saved in perpetuity.  We are not responsible for them just in the immediate moments after taking part in them, viewed by a temporally limited audience; we now must take responsibility for them for as long as they remain available online (potentially forever) to an audience of, essentially, everyone.

However, the kinds of developments discussed in the articles I linked above take this much further.  It is bad enough that we are having to redefine our idea of “public” as vast amounts of our social interactions become broadly available for long periods of time, but now we are beginning to be asked to subject even those parts of our online lives that were previously “private” (like our Facebook and email accounts) to this kind of surveillance and moral judgement.  Further, as companies rely on this information more and more to put together pictures of the kinds of people they think we are, it will become a requirement that we not only subject ourselves to this surveillance, but that we live much of our lives in public so that a sizeable footprint from which to draw data about us from is available for companies to make use of.  At that point there are only two options: willingly subject significant amounts of your life to corporate surveillance or withdraw from the system, maintaining some semblance of privacy but in return giving up access to large swathes of the job market, credit markets, insurance markets, and whatever else begins to use these spying techniques in the future.  This is not an acceptable social trade-off, and we need to tackle these issues head-on before more people are forced into making these kinds of decisions.

What happens when a significant amount of our private lives are subject to corporate surveillance is that we are forced to live in a way that corporations approve of regardless of our own personal desires or code of ethics.  If companies are relying on access to our private lives in order to make judgements about whether to hire us, provide us with a loan, etc. then we have to begin thinking at virtually all times about whether our behaviour accords with the principles of the businesses that we interact with.  Are we going to have to limit our discussions about things like workplace safety, our desire to unionise, etc. if those things are going to be subject to corporate surveillance?  You can’t be fired from your current job for discussing unionisation (at least not in Ontario), but what’s to stop a potential future employer who has access to your private Facebook account from choosing not to hire you on the basis of those conversations in what is, ostensibly, private (like your private messages)?  Other examples are easy to come up with; for example, what if you’ve had discussions about joining a protest?  What if you’ve made a joke that was critical of a company that you’re now trying to do business with?  What if you’ve complained about your boss?  Can we do any of those things in a venue that could be subject to analysis by corporate algorithms at some unspecified future date?

This is going to have extremely limiting effects on what kinds of opinions people are able to express, what kinds of activities they engage in, etc.  If we live our lives out online and we’re required to submit a huge portion of what we do to businesses so that they can analyse it to ensure that our behaviour accords with the standards that they’ve set out, we’re providing corporations with way too much power over our lives.  We are approaching a point at which we’re not just responsible to our employers while we’re at work, but at virtually all times.  Indeed, if corporate surveillance proceeds in the direction it’s going we’ll become responsible to potential future employers as well, in addition to places such as lending institutions whose services we may wish or even need to do business with.

It is imperative that we take decisive action to prevent these trends from continuing.  Corporations have no right to know what we do in our free time, and they should not be granted the power to dictate the social norms to which we must adhere through constant surveillance of our private lives.  We do not belong to the companies we do business with.


You may be thinking, “Sure, companies will inevitably use data as it becomes more widely available and ubiquitous, but we’re in no danger of it completely usurping traditional methods of judging job applicants such as where you went to university or how much experience you have.”  This is quite likely true.  But it is true to very differing degrees to people with different economic and social backgrounds.  If you’ve got a business degree from Harvard you’re probably not going to have much trouble using that to find work.  And indeed, if you’ve got a business degree from Harvard you’ve probably made some excellent social connections along the way that can help guide you toward good employment, among other things.

But what if you don’t have a good degree from a respected university?  What if you haven’t built up significant experience working similar jobs in the past?  What if your upbringing hasn’t provided you with the kinds of connections that make it easier to find good work?  Then you’re much more likely to be subject to this kind of surveillance.  Which means that corporations are going to be exerting differing amounts of pressure to conform on people based on their social status (which, though it should go without saying, also often has a lot to do with ethnicity).  If you come from a well-off family and have plenty of social or economic status already you won’t be subject to nearly the same degree of surveillance or pressure to change your behaviour and limit the expression of your opinions in comparison to someone who has not been so lucky.

That people who from lower socioeconomic groups are subject to more surveillance is something that is already broadly true.  For example, New York City’s stop and frisk program overwhelmingly targets visible minorities, subjecting them to a level of police surveillance that white, middle class New Yorkers very rarely are.  Similarly, there’s a long history of organizations such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service performing significant amounts of surveillance on peaceful protest groups while paying relatively little attention to corporations or the wealthy who are engaging in illegal, destructive behaviour.  This inequality in surveillance serves to further cement socioeconomic differences, and we ought to fight back against attempts to extend this kind of surveillance into the digital realm.

That these uses of technology are likely to disproportionately affect poor and working class people is not just conjecture (however rooted in history) on my part.  Two of the articles I linked to above are specifically about companies using these kinds of technology to assess people who fall outside the bounds within which these companies normally do business.  The credit start-up mentioned above is targetting people who don’t have access to regular credit markets, particularly people who don’t have credit histories and are difficult to otherwise judge.  And the firm whose algorithm tries to assess potential job applicants has written it specifically so that it can analyse people who don’t have the standard job qualifications.  While their intent may not be to engage in surveillance based on socioeconomic status, in the end that’s what it is, and that’s what it will be for similar companies in the future as well.


A lot of discussions about online privacy take for granted that we understand what privacy is and why it’s important.  It’s often unclear, though, why privacy matters and what specific effects violations of privacy may have on our lives.  I’ve only scraped the surface of the massive, constant violations of privacy that we’re subject to when we use online services, but I hope that for the small corner of that ecosystem that I’ve discussed here I’ve given a bit of a more clear explanation about what exactly it is that we ought to be fighting against, why and how it will specifically affect our lives.  This kind of surveillance isn’t just harmless data gathering; it can have significant impacts on the ways in which we go about our private lives, and we should remain vigilant against its encroachment into our private spaces.

* – because I’m working on a video game about the ubiquity of corporate data surveillance in our lives.  Also because I work with some of this kind of data at my job.  Also because I’m a nerd.

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