Big technology companies want to continue growing, because companies that are not going up are going down, and nobody wants to go down. But they have been so successful and they are so gigantic that it is not easy to find a place to grow. What Alice in Wonderland, trapped in the rabbit house after being overgrown, tech women have their arms and legs sticking out of the windows and chimney of the democracy house.
One possibility to grow even more is to try to attract new customers. But how do you find a new audience when the vast majority of adults with internet access around the world are already your users? One option, which Facebook is chasing unscrupulously, is to focus on younger and younger children. The new interest group for technology are children six to nine years. If it were up to the company, every baby would be born with a Facebook account. This option is limited, because sooner or later all children vulnerable to being exposed to their technology will be captured, and it also has its risks. There are some research to Facebook and Instagram in the United States for knowingly causing harm to minors. And where does it grow then?
Another possibility is to digitize more and more aspects of the world. Despite the rapid advancement of digital technologies, most of our reality remains analog, even after the coronavirus pandemic. Most of our purchases they are not online. Most readers prefer books in paper. Many of our urban spaces, our houses, our clothes, many of our conversations, our perceptions, our thoughts and our loved ones are analogical.
The tech giants share the desire to digitize the world because it is an easy way to gain ground, to enlarge the house. Everything analog is a potential resource. Something that can be converted into data and then commercialized. That is why Facebook has released new glasses with Ray-Ban that have microphones and a camera. More data capture. That’s why the new iPhone operating system can digitize text and numbers from an image, it can scan buildings to be recognized in the maps application, it has algorithms that can identify objects in a video in real time, and it makes it possible to turn photos into models. three-dimensional for use in virtual reality. That is why Microsoft is proposing a platform that creates three-dimensional avatars for more interactive meetings. And that’s why Facebook – excuse me, Meta – is insisting on its metaverse.
The tech titans assure us that their new inventions will respect our privacy, of course. What they omit is what I call the iron law of digitization: digitizing is monitoring. There is no such thing as unattended scanning. The very act of converting what was not into data is a form of surveillance. Digitizing involves creating a record, labeling things to make them easier to find and follow. Digitizing is equivalent to making what was not traceable. And what is tracking, if not monitoring?
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a couple of engineers who did not conceive that there could be a privacy problem with digitizing the world. Too many people who are enthusiastic about digital technology are under the impression, as convenient as it is wrong, that if people consent to the collection of data, and if the data processing happens within our own phone or computer, there is no privacy problem. .
First: there is no informed consent in data collection. The consent that we give is not consent, because it is not truly voluntary, nor is it informed, because no one has a clue as to where that data might end up and what inferences it might suggest in the future. Second: creating data is morally problematic in and of itself. The data are not natural phenomena, like mushrooms that we find in the forest. We create the data, and that act of creation carries with it a moral responsibility and a duty of care towards data subjects.
What privacy issue can there be if the data is on each user’s phone? The engineer asks me, assuming that users have control over their phones, and ignoring the many examples that show otherwise.
At best, our phones have a life of their own. They have autonomous abilities, such as the ability to pass data to third parties without our realizing it, and most of us have little idea of how they work. In addition, every phone connected to the internet is hackable. And what about the abusers who are taking advantage of technologies to control their partners and children? If an abuser forces you to share your password, the data that your phone has created without your asking (where you have been, who you have called, etc.) can play against you. And what happens when a customs agent asks you at the US border to unlock the phone? Or if the police ask you to? And who can guarantee that an insurer will not ask you for access to that data in the future? As soon as the personal data has been created and saved, there is a privacy risk for the data subject.
Of course, asking technology companies not to digitize the world is like asking builders to do the favor of not paving natural spaces. Unless society sets legal limits, nobody pays attention. That is why governments establish protected areas when it comes to building.
We need similar protected areas when it comes to surveillance. It is in the nature of technology companies to convert analog to digital. But turning everything into a potential spy is a threat to freedom and democracy. Surveillance leads to societies of control, which in turn leads to diminished freedom. When we know we are being watched, we censor ourselves, and when others know too much about us, they can predict, influence, and manipulate our behavior.
There are some data that are better not to create. There are data that it is better not to have. There are some experiences that should never be recorded.
I would like to have a phone that doesn’t create data without being asked, or wipes it shortly after it was created. I want a phone without facial recognition, where the camera and microphones can be mechanically disabled, for example.
Just over a decade ago, enjoying digital technology was a luxury. Increasingly, luxury is being able to enjoy space and time away from digital technology. That’s why Silicon Valley elites raise their children without screens. It is necessary to defend the analog world. If we let virtual reality proliferate without limits, surveillance will be just as limitless. Just by tracking your look, companies could recognize your identity, your ethnicity, your emotions, aspects of your mental and physical health, and more. If we want to maintain our democracies and freedom in the digital age, we better put limits on what is digitized.
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