The Flinchum File
Thoughtful Economic Analysis and Existential Opinions

Innocence Lost

02/06/2020

Early on, I recognized that Google’s motto of “Do No Evil” was a joke.  They sold personal information on their customers to anybody who can pay for it.  Then, Facebook came along and made the sale of personal information into a major industry.  Now, nobody is certain how many companies are selling your personal information.

In those early days, it was seen as a profits over privacy issue, which profits won, of course.  To my amazement, our privacy was not stolen – it was given away voluntarily, in exchange for whatever services the Big Tech companies offered.  Talking to my favorite IT-person, he said he was happy to receive targeted advertising on things he wanted.  For more useful advertising, he voluntarily dumped his privacy — it still amazes me!

I recently attended a lecture from Amy Webb, professor of strategic foresight at NYU, on the subject of artificial intelligence (AI), which relies on massive quantities of data.  The “internet-of-things” (iot) is exploding, with each device picking up more data on you, even “smart” toilets that analyze bio-metric data, which health insurance companies want.  Theoretically, that information is relayed to you and your doctor, but it is more likely that your health insurance premiums will increase.  (Would you use a “smart” toilet for a discount on your health insurance premiums?)  If you are home at an unusual time, the “cloud” will know that and might call to check on you, even calling the police if the computer thinks you need them.  The more data collected on you, the more intelligent the Big Tech cloud becomes.

As long as the data was used only to target advertising, it was a barely acceptable sacrifice of privacy but is nonetheless a step out onto that slippery slope.  George Orwell’s classic 1984  depicts a world of “Big Brother” watching your every move.  Those were the days of video – how quaint?  Now, the accumulated personal data on you can be analyzed and conclusions drawn by AI.  If Big Brother is a government, it is bad.  Does that make it good if Big Brother is Big Tech?  Doesn’t the surrender of privacy to tech companies inevitably lead to surrender of privacy to the government?

China is now in the year 1983, as facial recognition is required of every person, as each computer must show your face when sitting at the keyboard, where artificial intelligence gives you a citizenship score that determines your credit worthiness, your promotion eligibility, your freedom to travel.  Of course, nobody knows the algorithm used to determine your citizenship score, but any disrespect for the Communist Party is a major negative.  What year is our country in?  1982?

Professor Webb referred to Facebook as evil.  I suspect any “free” social media company is evil, shoving us ever faster on that slippery slope to 1984.

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