What do most of the evils surrounding tech have in common? Problems like tech addiction, personalised propaganda and algorithms that discriminate are all made possible thanks to businesses and governments exploiting our personal data.
Companies that live off your data know everything about you: where you live and work, how well you sleep at night, how much you drink, how well you drive, the state of your finances, what worries you, what you desire, the worst thing you’ve ever done, your deepest fears, the things that you wouldn’t even tell your best friend about. They know if you’re being unfaithful, or if you’re thinking of changing jobs. They know about your political tendencies, your sexual fantasies and your character flaws. They even know your weight (the seat on your smart car is keeping track). And they use this information against you.
For example, data analysts might know that you are someone prone to worry. They might then target you with ads that are specifically designed to trigger your anxiety, if that’s what it takes to make you click on something. We are puppets to them.
The more data vultures know about us, the more easily they can hack our psychology, manipulate our emotions and pit us against each other, thereby hacking our democracies too. What you see on social media is never a reflection of reality. Rather, it is a reflection of who data vultures think you are, of what they think you will react to. Whatever you see on social media is there to make you click on it, to make you engage, to make you spend more time online so that tech companies can earn more money at your expense.
And the more time you spend online, the more data they can get on you, which sometimes they go on to sell to whoever wants to buy it. It’s almost as if there is a virtual clone of you made of personal data on the basis of which decisions about your life are being made, without your knowledge or consent.
If you get denied a loan, a job, or even an apartment, there is a good chance your data clone is to blame. Sometimes the data on your file isn’t even true. You might be treated unfairly on the basis of inaccurate information about you, but you’ll never know about it, because you are not in control of your data.
We have to fix this situation before the extreme surveillance architecture we have built ends up wrecking our societies. We need better laws. Personal data should not be the kind of thing that can be bought and sold. And whoever has data on us should be bound to duties whereby our data can only be used in our own interest, and never against us. But regulation will not come on its own. Public pressure is necessary for businesses and governments alike to protect our privacy. There is much you can do as an individual to take back control of your personal data and demand privacy from institutions.
Share less online. Don’t buy “smart” products if you can avoid it: an old-fashioned kettle works just as well or even better than a smart one and it doesn’t spy on you. Often, buying smart is dumb. Look for privacy-friendly alternatives (such as DuckDuckGo instead of Google Search). Contact your political representatives and tell them you are worried about your privacy; ask them what they’re doing to protect you. Read about privacy.
Although it might not always be apparent, the surveillance economy depends on our co-operation to work. Those who have stolen our information and used it against us have abused our trust, and it’s time to pull the plug on their source of power – our personal data.
Carissa Véliz is the author of Privacy Is Power (Bantam Press), and an associate professor in philosophy at Oxford University