By Sergei A. Samoilenko
Internet of Things, smart homes, and face recognition technology have become the trademarks of our time. Most organizations use big data for predictive analytics to improve business results. The benefits of smart city technology are dependent on constant data flows captured and collected by sensors and cameras.
This intrusive convenience, however, constantly disrupts personal privacy and minimizes any chances for anonymity. For example, now many Samsung “SmartTVs” come equipped with voice recognition. Just in passing, Samsung has told its SmartTV customers that every word is being captured and sent over the Internet. As Michael Patrick Lynch, professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, put it, “we are living in an updated version of Jeromy Bentham’s famous panopticon . . . our digital lives are fishbowls; but fishbowls we’ve gotten into willingly.”
Most data are collected through “cookies” allowing Internet companies to engage in microtargeting and offer us products based on the history of our previous online behavior and preferences. Our personal smartphone collects data that can later be mined to find out our whereabouts or how we spent our money. Streaming media, smartphones, and other tracking devices offer advertisers an opportunity to micro-target consumers when they are near their store or a restaurant. Many businesses seek to monetize personal data of their clients by selling it to third parties. Unlike other countries, the U.S. legislation is very lenient regarding web privacy. Notably, wireless companies are legally free to disclose their customers’ location when they use their smartphone to look up that business on the Internet.
Internet giants like Google, Facebook, or Amazon and authorities utilize data analytics as an essential part of their mass surveillance, predictive policing, and control. Today, facial recognition technology enables authorities to identify any individual based on their public photos on social networking sites. Facial recognition software with data mining algorithms are able to identify an individual’s name, location, interests, and close friends and relatives. Through location-based services in smartphones, the movements of individuals can be tracked and monitored by authorities. The inability of citizens to opt out of such new technologies cultivates greater concern as available alternatives to allowing such technologies and devices into our lives dwindle.
Big data panopticon makes the notion of Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society’ critical again. In such a society, power is achieved by increasing the number of people who can be controlled. By the way, U.S. Intelligence Chief James Clapper acknowledged in congressional testimony that agencies might use a new generation of smart household devices to increase their surveillance capabilities.
Indeed, it’s time to catch up. China has already decided to add facial recognition to its monitoring system to track suspects and even predict crimes across the country, building on a surveillance system that is already one of the world’s largest. Another data-driven system is the government’s new “social credit” platform, which is supposed to generate ratings for each Chinese citizen for actions ranging from loan approvals to permission to board flights. This system also uses large amounts of user-generated and biometric data to help authorities reward good citizens and identify those who proved to be unreliable and deserve public shaming.
There are different ways how big data can be used for character assassination. The final episode “Hated in the Nation” of the third season of the science fiction series Black Mirror demonstrates how ridiculously easy it is to manipulate public opinion by starting a shaming hashtag campaign launched by a social bot. According to the plot, each day, the person that was subject of the most “#DeathTo” tweets was killed by mechanical robot bees that used a facial recognition system to identify and monitor their targets. Apparently, those micro drones were also used for government surveillance.
In reality, high profile individuals are particularly threatened by online astroturfing in the form of paid pollsters, trolls, and social bots. These imposters are often overseen by omnipotent patrons who supply them with tons of classified data that has been “leaked” or stolen by internet hackers. Astroturfers may pose as regular citizens with the intent of promoting disinformation or discredit opponents by revealing some “juicy” or confidential information. Rumors and conspiracy theories may eventually filter into real conversations that spread from person to person through word of mouth.
Most importantly, Internet companies and intelligence agencies now have access to large amounts of personal data including information that can potentially be used as kompromat. One day, compromising materials on today’s digital natives could be used for blackmailing the next generation of political and business leaders. Ultimately, Internet giants will be able to manipulate the decisions of CEOs and presidents and dictate the course of international trade and world politics.