The premise of privacy in a post-truth world
“Imagine this for a second,” says Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, during what appears to be a televised broadcast on a major news network. “One man with total control of billions of people’s stolen data — all their secrets, their lives, their futures. Whoever controls the data, controls the future.”
The viral video, which features the above clip, is entirely real. But it’s not Mark Zuckerberg speaking. It’s a deepfake — a convincing computer avatar of Zuckerberg — and part of artist and researcher Bill Posters’s recent conceptual art installation, Spectre. The work offers a critique of the power and methods wielded by the global tech companies who own and control our data.
It was also the theme of a panel I moderated at the 1E9 conference in Munich, Germany. Entitled “Against a Capitalism of Surveillance,” the panel featured Bill Posters himself, as well as Brave Software chief scientist Ben Livshits and Brabbler CEO Eric Dolatre.
Together, we discussed the perils of personal privacy in the age of big data supremacy, the power held by data-gathering companies to shape our worldview, and the role that individuals, organizations, and governments might have in fostering change. The theme of the conference, incidentally, was supposed to be tech optimism…
Here’s a working, albeit less-than-cheery definition of surveillance capitalism. From Bill’s point of view: “We could define surveillance capitalism as an extension of the logic of capitalism that builds on the last 400 years of enclosure of land, of resources, of raw materials. Now, we’re seeing it mutate really into this new form, which is essentially interested in how human experience can be taken, extracted, and used as a new raw material, as behavioral data, and how wealth can be inferred from that.”
That may sound cynical, but in substance, it’s true. “We have the reality where, for very little money in grand terms, you can get incredibly intimate personal data of each of us,” he said.
Data clarity and confusion
Our data is indeed out there, owned by organizations with relatively little oversight or transparency into its use. This fact has led to some concerning consequences.
For instance, while common data-led practices — such as using personal data to send targeted ads — may seem relatively benign, political efforts also leverage that data. Governments, candidates, and their supporters routinely spend millions of dollars on ads to influence our perceptions, beliefs, and voting decisions, even when it isn’t always clear that the ads are campaign-funded. “That opens up a very dangerous space for democracy,” Bill said.
Consider the fact that tech companies, via free-to-use social media services and data-driven algorithms, now largely control our access to news media. “That, by itself, is a much greater problem for us as a society than many, many other factors,” said Ben.
The reality is that, in a world of free media, access to higher-quality content increasingly costs money. For instance, a majority of the most established English-speaking journalism outlets — including sites like the New York Times, the Economist, and the Wall Street Journal — have a paywall or payment mechanism in place, requiring paid subscription for access.
“If you cannot afford to pay, say, 20 euros a month for access to content, all you get is, frankly, nonsense, right?” Ben said. “Low-quality, lowest common denominator news.”
The essence of surveillance capitalism might, therefore, be the fact that consumers become more transparent to the companies who collect their data, while the world, to consumers, becomes all the more opaque.
Considering the solutions
For Brabbler CEO Eric, the roots of the dilemma lie in a lack of alternative business models — and therefore fewer free options for consumers. He knows what he’s talking about. In 1997, Eric created arguably the world’s first ad-supported email service in Germany, with the launch of the popular GMX.
Eric thinks the current rush for consumer data is really an extension of the pre-Internet model of magazine publishers, who sold print ads to keep operations afloat. “In the mid-1990s, when the internet community was small, startups desperate for revenue started thinking like publishers,” said Eric. “They said, ‘How can we earn money? We won’t charge anything for our service. We just sell advertising to the industry.’ This is how it started, and things haven’t changed up to now.”
Yet for users, there are limited alternatives to these data-fed digital services — even if they, as 75 percent of consumers do, have concerns about how their data is shared. Bill puts it simply: “It’s very difficult to have a functioning normal life without access to these things.”
Eric and Ben believe that a logical next step in response to consolidated control is the development of other business models — ones which don’t require siphoning user data.
Both are working on digital services that protect the privacy of consumers. Eric’s company Brabbler offers a secure, encrypted messaging platform, ginlo, that bills itself as an alternative to WhatsApp.
Ben, meanwhile, has helped build Brave, a secure web browser that blocks third-party, data-led ads. Instead, it uses machine learning techniques to deliver ads that respect user privacy, and the company actually pays users to view them.
“It’s important to acknowledge that some of these business models that we think are omnipresent and all-powerful — well, they’re not,” Ben said. “There is a chance for an alternative, one that’s more privacy-preserving and respectful of the wishes of the user, to come in and take over, over time.”
Apart from new business models, the panel felt that government regulation needs to play a role in protecting the privacy of consumers. Efforts like Europe’s such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California’s California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) — which takes effect in 2020 — enhance the data privacy rights of consumers while levying the threat of fines against non-compliant organizations.
But the panel noted that it will take a broad social consensus to control mass data sharing. Eric went even further, characterizing the need to deal with the data problem as similar to the challenges related to climate change and global warming. “If people just accept this, and don’t really say, ‘Something’s going wrong, and I’m going to do something against it,” well, then, good night, Earth,” he said.
Despite the possible hyperbole, the panelists actually remain optimistic about the possibility of progress. Asked to rate, on a scale from one to ten, the likelihood of change, the panelists responded as follows:
Bill: Seven, eight.
We might just stand a chance.