Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
George Orwell’s seminal work ‘1984’ was half right. The all-seeing system is here. It’s functional, monitoring our every move, detailing likes and dislikes, noting opinions. But Orwell got one thing wrong. Government’s didn't foster it. It wasn’t imposed on us, rather we’ve embraced and welcomed it to pry into all aspects of our life. The impact it's had is profound, evolving and somewhat disturbing. Facebook is watching you.
Interesting fact. Each year Facebook spends US$10 million lobbying to quash biometric privacy legislation. That’s serious money that is buying a lot of clout. Why would it be doing this? Simple. It wants to gather more data on each of us because that helps Facebook sell targeted advertising. It’s all about profit.
You may think Facebook is a social network tool. Wrong, it’s a huge data mining operation. And the real clever thing is that we are helping to populate the database. Further, every day we are teaching it to get smarter. Each time you tag someone in a photograph that feeds a massive facial recognition dataset. What's more, it's learning to recognise us from different angles and ages. Currently, about two billion of us are working as unpaid drones feeding the machine. That includes me.
‘People You May Know’ or PYMY is a subsystem within Facebook. That’s the bit that generates those friend suggestions. Algorithms do the data crunching using 100 plus parameters to make the links. Location, workplace, interests, group membership are but a few. Facebook is reluctant to talk details. What is certain, these algorithms are somewhat scary in the links they make. In several instances, unknown brothers and sisters have been brought together. That’s nice. Infidelity in marriages exposed; perhaps not so good. In one instance, the system started linking the patients of a psychiatrist. This inadvertently revealed people seeking mental health support. Not good.
In the wrong hands, these systems has the potential for great harm. In Australia evidence emerged in 2011 of outlaw motorcycle gangs building up a database of police officers. They attended passing out parades to take photographs of new recruits. These then matched in Facebook or elsewhere gave gangs a tool against infiltration. The gangs could screen their inductees, associates or contacts. Former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty stated: “Face-recognition technology and the near-universal adoption of social networking tools by teenagers could have already made future covert police and intelligence operations difficult, if not impossible”. Witness protection programmes are also vulnerable.
But it cuts both ways. The same systems provide a gold mine of data to the authorities. People matching, movement monitoring, hangouts and habits are all treasure to investigators. The Yorkshire Ripper case exposed the weakness of paper based systems. The culprit, Peter Sutcliffe, interviewed nine times escaped undetected for years. He went unlinked in the mountain of paper the police investigators gathered. Facebook could do the job, with obliging criminals providing the source data.
Today, it’s terrorism that is driving the adoption of facial recognition. As a tool to track and interdict attackers its unparalleled. Again, such systems have a downside. They could pick up undercover cops and others who need to remain covert. Firewalls and tight protocols on usage are needed to protect those people. Moreover, the whole matter of data privacy when mass scanning a population needs addressing. It wouldn't take much for a rogue operator to deploy the system to check if his wife is having an affair. Or who is his daughter meeting? That’s at the less sinister end of the scale. Higher up the scale would be tracking by paedophiles of their victims.
And yes, the use of such systems for mass surveillance would herald ‘Big Brother’. In fact, the horse has already bolted and there is no point closing the stable door. Facebook and other systems are out there with our tacit blessing. On the other hand, some are beginning to seek a way out. Getting off the system might be an option except your pictures are already up there with a match made.
In response to these concerns, the right to disconnect and disappear is gaining momentum. Currently, there are no international standards. Meanwhile, the European Union has moved to a position that data privacy is a fundamental human right. This asserts that the individual must have control on how data is used. This has brought the EU into conflict with the Big Four - Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook. EU regulations in this regard enjoy application even if the server is outside Europe. Moreover, the burden of proof has shifted. It is the company - not the individual - who must prove that the data cannot be deleted. They must show it's still needed and relevant.
Yet real concerns remain if regulations lag. Michal Kosinski- an Assistant Professor at Stanford - discussed these issues in a recent lecture. He believes that within 10 years privacy will be gone. “For a motivated individual, for a motivated government, or an institution, there is very little to stop them from learning about you". Kosinski’s experiments have had astonishing results. He has shown that existing systems can predict a person’s sex, colour, and gender. Straightforward with a photograph. The worrying findings include determinations on people's politics, self-beliefs and attitudes on discrimination. Our inner-most thoughts are being caught by these systems. That's an ominous tool in the wrong hands.
It’s only a matter of time before, for example, people get refused insurance because of their online stuff. Facebook activity could reveal an unhealthy lifestyle with heavy alcohol consumption. Next data from your fitness tracker shows you are ‘sedentary’. Bingo, the insurance company has you as a high risk.
We need to sit back to reflect on these issues, although it's likely too late. Posting all those racy party photos may not have been so wise.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.