Thursday, March 31, 2016

Every Search You Make (Big Data's Watching You): Impartial Algorithms & Erosions of Privacy

By: Geoffrey L.
Big data is watching you. Every click you make, every link you take, they'll be watching you.
      I was recently prompted by Facebook to conduct a privacy checkup because, according to Facebook, they were "concerned about my privacy" and wanted to make sure that I was "sharing with the right people." However, this tagline made me wonder if I should perhaps be more worried about sharing my information with Facebook than with the masses of the internet. After all, as Pasquale notes in his excerpt "Digital Reputation in an Era of Runaway Data," every single action taken online is collected, analyzed, sold, and used for targeted marketing, with little regard for the user's privacy. In particular, Facebook has admitted to tinkering with its users' news feeds in an attempt to manipulate their moods and the recent release of the Facebook reaction buttons has caused some to speculate that this new feature will also be used to gather more data from users and continue to experiment with users emotions. (I personally have received several strange taglines at the top of my newsfeed wishing me a "good evening," or suggesting that I tell the world about my voting behavior, causing me to wonder what tests Facebook is running on me and giving me a strange sense of solidarity with lab rats and guinea pigs). Google has similarly been found to have ruthlessly data mined users and exploited several browser loopholes to collect even more information from consumers of their services.
     This collection of data shows clear parallels to the informationist model of communication. Companies that collect data say that their data speaks for itself and that through their computers' analysis of the data, the companies will be able to make their services more efficient and user-friendly. Indeed, data on websites like OkCupid have made some interesting discoveries about Americans' online dating behavior.
     However, despite the intriguing insights that internet companies are able to reveal about human behavior, it has to be wondered if the algorithms websites use to collect and analyze data aren't subtly impacted by the attitudes and prejudices of their programmers. As outlined in the rhetorical model of communication, this often-overlooked human element of data has a strong influence on its collection and interpretation. For example, the ordering or grouping of options that are given to any given user of OKCupid could subtly influence their behavior. Furthermore, the data that these websites collect does not always speak for itself. Rather, human interpretation, like Christian Rudder's discussion of cliché online dating behavior, often emphasizes certain aspects of data while ignoring others.
      In addition to the fallibility of the systems set up to gather or analyze online data, data collection has been accompanied with other troubling developments. As Pasquale notes in his writing, data collectors often sell their information to the highest bidder, resulting in an unfortunate erosion of individual privacy. While individuals have come to expect some nebulous "right to privacy" from the government, companies like Facebook and Google have seemingly been able to circumvent this expectation just by virtue of being private companies. People simply seem to shrug their shoulders and suggest that individuals should know what they're getting in to when they go online and that the the burden of privacy protection lies with the individual rather than the internet companies harvesting the data. However, this attitude prevents discussion about the nature of privacy in the digital age and precludes the possibility of of the development of any real expectation of privacy from private businesses.
     Though individuals often respond to this data collection by suggesting individuals do their best to self-monitor their internet activity and minimize their digital footprints, this is no longer enough. In the era of big data, a call must be made for legislation that establishes greater user privacy and protects individuals from data mining companies and government surveillance. At very least, effort should be made to establish more transparency in the data collection process, with each action detailing exactly what data has been gathered and individuals being given a voice in which types of information will be sold to marketers. While the internet may be an inescapable part of everyday life, our privacy should never be surrendered wholly to the new watchmen of the world wide web.

No comments:

Post a Comment