Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for December 2013

Google’s unofficial boardroom motto is “Don’t be evil”. But how is “evil” understood by a company which surrendered information about its searchers to the US National Security Agency in 2010 but withdrew from China a year later complaining about that country’s state surveillance?

I have been reading a fascinating account of the Internet (Untangling the Web) by Aleks Krotoski, a journalist and academic researcher with the Oxford Internet Institute. I find many of her judgments well-balanced and thoughtful. She partakes neither in the “hype” about the web nor in the fear-mongering over its potential for evil. She reminds us that no technology is “neutral” but reflects the priorities, values, worldviews, and concerns of the human context in which it is developed.

She writes: “The truth is that software, from computer games to web services, from Amazon to, is suffused with the principles decreed by the context in which it is produced… Spaces like Facebook, places like Second Life or World of Warcraft and technologies like Google permit and discourage certain kinds of uses, and these are being designed by the people behind the machines. The ways in which these web services fulfil our needs to connect, play or search for information and products are coloured by their developers’ personal backgrounds, life circumstances, social circles, hometowns, financial wealth and many other things. We are critical of the news we read, the programmes we watch, the movies we see and the art we appreciate. We are aware that they are constructs of their creators. We can point to liberal newspapers and conservative TV. Yet we seem to forget that the web is a network that is entirely human-produced, and primarily created by people who live in a small area of Northern California.

The web has become an indispensable part of our lives. We upload enormous amounts of personal information to the web, mostly to social networks and e-commerce, because it serve our needs and we cannot imagine the vastness of the potential audience who may have access to what we communicate and how they will use the information we share. Even what is not explicitly shared, such as indirect references to other people, events or groups, is stored in gigantic databases (called Big Data) where complicated pattern-matching and cross-referencing algorithms reveal connections that would otherwise have remained invisible. Bits of personal data extracted by a website or social media page for one purpose can easily be deployed by others for another purpose.

Surveillance is endemic to the new technologies that we use (or use us). People choose to carry mobile phones, even though the phones’ geolocation feature makes them prime tracking devices. Every click of the mouse, every webpage visited, every purchase on eBay or Amazon, every “like” button pressed on Facebook, leaves an information trail and builds up an online digital version of oneself that is open to commercial manipulation. When Wall Street puts a value on Facebook or Google, it is not for the services they provide, but for the data they collect and its worth to advertisers, among others.

Online, it is our friends (and not our enemies) who are likely to betray us- even if we ourselves are offline or very circumspect in how we enter our privacy settings. Your friends will have photos of you on their Facebook walls, and divulge information about how they saw you last night, or who they saw you with at that party, what you said about so-and-so at that seminar, or where you normally go on holiday. Websites and social media are increasingly connected with other, and mergers and acquisitions mean that what is shared on one site is now available to others all over the web. That’s why if you order roses for your girlfriend through one site, you will see ads for roses appearing on other sites you visit. If you are an American and express online how much you love hummus and Al Jazeera, you may not only see ads for Turkish and Lebanese restaurants appearing on your favourite websites, but you may have your home broken into by a FBI Swat team. Big Data poses an enormous threat to our civil liberties because it gives a disproportionate amount of control to machines.

Krotoski tells the story of how, in early 2012, a 15-year old girl’s shopping behaviour at the US chain Target told the computer system that she was pregnant. It automatically printed and sent coupons for maternity wear and baby toys to her home, where she still lived with her parents. The superstore divulged to her parents the news that she had not told them. Computers cannot replace people in interpreting data and knowing how to use –and not use- that data.

There is so much that is wonderful about the Internet- it is educative, useful, entertaining, lucrative, therapeutic, and fun. But, as the technology commentator Sue Halpern observes, while we were having fun, we happily and willingly have helped to create the greatest surveillance system ever imagined. “The free flow of information over the Internet, which serves us well, may serve others better. Whether this distinction turns out to matter may be the one piece of information the Internet cannot deliver.”

With each new communication technology, we are forced to renegotiate our personal and social boundaries because each new technology makes us vulnerable in a different way.

What reasons can we give for caring about these boundaries? And how do we stop colluding in our own exploitation?



December 2013