Last weekend I attended the Hope X (Hackers On Planet Earth) conference in New York. It was a little discouraging, to be honest. Don't get me wrong: I loved the talks I attended, the enthusiasm of the speakers, the wild soup of ideas presented... but the overall narrative I walked away with is that self-proclaimed "hackers" are losing the battle for privacy and anonymity in the face of Google, Facebook, and the NSA. Hackers struggle to create private communication tools which are as easy to use — and provide as much value — as Google and Facebook's data-devouring products do. And the NSA just seems hell bent on cracking everything anyway.
But it's not just this everlasting battle for the heart of the internet that's got me down. In all these enormous land grabs for private data, I see the potential for Big Data... for little people. Big Data, as it's normally meant, means gathering as much data as possible about the behaviors, identity, and proclivities of people, and crunching that data for marketing purposes. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are only as profitable as they are knowledgable about their users — the more precision they have in offering ads to their users, the more value they can provide to advertisers.
And yet there are so many other ways Big Data can be used to serve the people from whom Big Data is derived. Google is at the forefront of this, with services like Google Now and its latest version of Android. By tracking the behavior of all users, it can better determine what one specific user is likely to be looking for at any given moment. And while Facebook's recent psychological experiment was a horrible abuse of its users' trust, the results were super interesting, and I would gleefully sign up for "guinea pig" status to see more studies like it — comprised of willing participants, of course.
In so many ways I think these sorts of Artificial Intelligence are magical and potentially life changing. A Very Smart Computer that knows everything about me, including my habits, my diet, my interests, and, yes, my secrets, can potentially tell me things that would be very useful to my health and happiness. It might know which foods inspire me to exercise, and which foods inspire me to lay on the couch moaning. It might recognize the people I interact with who inspire me the most creatively, and the people I interact with who shut me down. It might even know when I'm susceptible to an ad, and when I need to be left alone.
There's a "cost" to such a talented computer, however: the total surrender of all my digital life to a for-profit technology company. And here's the crazy thing: I'm totally into it. I want to see what a motivated, innovative company can do when it knows more than my browser history, search history, Gmail and Google Doc contents, my friend list and my wall posts. And here's a totally non-crazy followup statement: I don't think everybody is ready for that level of invasion. Maybe most people aren't. And here's my point: that needs to be okay.
My offer is simple: in order to get the wackos like me to sign up for full-on privacy invasion, we need a clear and available option for our more guarded brethren to opt-out. And it needs to be a powerful opt-out. Currently most companies aggressively gather data on people whether they're registered users or not. Every Like, +1, and Tweet button on every web page (like the social buttons on this very blog post) is reporting user behavior back to the mothership.
There are currently ways to opt-out of some "targeted advertising," and ways to lock down your browser to not accept tracking cookies in general, but these options are piecemeal and not at all sufficient. As was demonstrated to me in painstaking detail at Hope X, the unique fingerprint of my browser, operating system, and IP address could be enough for a company to keep track of me. Or when I turn on my phone. Or when I type anything at all. Any single point of data can be quickly cross referenced and merged into the Canonical Paul Miller and His Proclivities.
Google provides multiple actual extensions to popular browsers to stop its Analytics service tracking you around the web, and to stop its DoubleClick advertising network from tracking you. To fully opt-out of all the other ways Google tracks you through its services and the wide web, you're looking at a good couple hours of work, and you'd still have no guarantee you aren't being tracked or that your personal data isn't being collected in some way you didn't think of. Facebook creates a "shadow profile" of users and possibly non-users. Twitter is perhaps the best citizen among the big three, at least honoring the "Do Not Track" setting in browsers.
Of course, even if a company swore to ignore your direct actions completely, it can still learn plenty by watching for what information your friends share about you, or who you reach out to. This is the foundation of Facebook's shadow profiles and the focus of the NSA's warrantless "metadata" collection. My point is it takes considered action, and good faith, for any major internet company to "forget" about somebody.
But I hope they can find a way. Because once we can trust a company to actively ignore us if asked, I think we'll be able to trust that same company with more information, and more personal information. That's when Big Data can truly teach us something about ourselves, instead of merely teaching marketers something about everybody.
Image courtesy of FRONT404, from George Orwell’s Birthday Party