There’s this little company you might have heard of in Cupertino, called Apple. Well, recently, their CEO publicly threw the gauntlet at tech companies who have been giving straw-man excuses for keeping your data, saying: “We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences. This is surveillance.”
Woah, back up. I’m being watched?
Unless this article is the first and only thing you’ve ever seen on the internet, odds are your information is up for grabs with any technology company who you’ve brushed against since Google was a thing. The reason you may not know this—or rather, that you’ve been blissfully unaware of—is that most of the information being culled is utterly useless to the average human. But what Tim Cook has been railing against is the power this insignificant information has when it is plugged into an algorithm.
The algorithms these companies are using don’t really need the Big Data they’ve been gathering on their users; it’s just laziness to not keep this data from spilling over. Or is it? What started as excess information pouring through the servers, at companies like Facebook and Amazon, grew into such as substantial amount of data that it has actually become money in the bank. A fresh spring of Big Data for A.I. algorithms to feed on. The result is hyper-targeted ads and filter bubbles that have helped Silicon Valley quadruple the investment they made in pursuing Moore's Law.
Capitalizing on your ignorance
The only viable reason to gather the kind of personal information some of these tech companies have been gathering is to sell that data for a profit—the majority of which is currently being done without your consent. Big Data becomes the press that literally prints money for tech companies as they send your shopping trends and website dwell-time statistics to the highest bidder.
But there is more to even this already complicated story.
Not content to maintain a monetary yield from these seemingly ill-gotten gains, some of the more megalomaniacal parties are bent on using Big Data for surveillance purposes. Shrouded in language like “marketing tactics” and “consumer optimization,” your data is ripe for making your life an open book to those who might want to muck with it. This is exactly what Cook zeros-in on in the statement we quoted. Without mincing words, he calls the gathering of consumer information what it is: surveillance.
In the face of this alternate use of the data, Cook goes on to promote good politics and policy as the solution with which to hewn a brighter future for us all. And we should all take heed to the CEO’s words. In the absence of good politics and policy, surveillance creates an opportunity for control that is too far out of our hands to affect—the kind of control that leads to the loss of individual liberty.
Even in a democratic society like ours, the potential for these control centers to take over our digital lives is a reality we should be fighting with every click we make. After all, it is just a click to switch these algorithms from “at our service” to “demanding our service.”