As long as they’re watching, I might as well throw them a bone.
I remember my first smartphone from more than a decade ago. It was made by Palm, long before the iPhone and long before the G1, the first Android phone. The Palm Treo had a stylus for a tiny screen with icons much the same as the iPhone and the Android phones did. It even had a browser, but data speeds back then were very slow by comparison to what we have now.
What I wasn’t thinking about back then with the smartphones and the internet in general, is that someone was watching. Someone with a pretended interest in “keeping us safe”. With the Palm Treo, the marriage between smartphones and the internet was complete by 2008, and then the amount of data created by every user started to grow, right alongside the surveillance state. The war on terror had been growing for years and we were the targets, not the terrorists.
I can recall reading about the lawsuits that arose after investigators learned that the NSA had placed eavesdropping hardware into the datacenters of our major carriers and ISPs. I guess I was shocked, but not terribly so. I could see that they wanted to hoover anything and everything and sort it and review it, as if any one of us could be a terrorist sympathizer.
But I saw something else. I began to consider the entire war on terror to be something called “security theater”. On the one hand, I’m aware that there are some pretty nutty people out there willing to do anything to prove a point. Even if they’re wrong. But on the other hand, most of the people I know are fairly benign and really, they just want to buy a house, raise a family, and retire someday, all in a state of peace. The vast majority of us are not terrorists.
The odds of being in a terrorist attack are lower than being struck by lightning. The odds then are remote that you will ever see another 9/11. Whether or not that has anything to do with the current security regime, I can’t say. It’s all security theater.
But my concern is not so much that, “Wow. Look at what we’re giving up for comfort from the terrorists.” My concern is, “Huh. I bet all that information would be great for rooting out dissent in America.” No matter how safe they say we’re going to be with someone poring over all that data, a task that will only get easier with artificial intelligence and machine learning, it is still possible to use that information for a political purpose.
It is not that hard to conceive of a plot to assassinate someone, quietly and covertly, using the data collected by a smartphone. With access to smartphone data, the government can determine a person’s daily routine. Where they go, what they do, how they do it. Social media can fill in tons of blank spots that GPS will leave behind.
It is not that hard to conceive of a plot to just make someone’s life miserable by planting the right people in the right locations to introduce inconveniences for any target who just happens to be an average American. With all the data collected by the United States government, it’s not that hard for them to turn someone into the modern day version of Job. Imagine a life consisting of years what is apparently extraordinarily bad luck, only to find out that the government was toying with you because of your politics.
Data is the new oil, and the tech giants are happy to play monoply with it. There is literally no end to the data we produce, too. To put the data we create in perspective, take a look at these stats from the World Economic Forum, this is what is created in one single day in the life of human civilization (if you can call it that):
500 million tweets are sent
294 billion emails are sent
4 petabytes of data are created on Facebook
4 terabytes of data are created from each connected car
65 billion messages are sent on WhatsApp
5 billion searches are made
By 2025, it’s estimated that 463 exabytes of data will be created each day globally — that’s the equivalent of 212,765,957 DVDs per day!
And according to Quora, 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube in just one minute, every hour of every day. Only a few years ago, that was just 24 hours in one minute. And now much of the new video is full HD or 4K video.
What really blows my mind is that there are some very smart people who have figured out the metrics for the storage of so much information. They’ve figured out the technology to just make it all work and to make it all so convenient to consume. They’ve got operating systems, file systems and networking down to a science. And as Google knows, everything breaks at scale.
I’m reminded of a couple of songs here. The first is “Boy In The Bubble”, by Paul Simon. I was listening to it last night as my kids were falling asleep while I played the album, Graceland for them.
And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires and baby
It would seem then, that Paul Simon could see it coming, even then, back in 1985. He could see that the flow of data, as the new oil, was just starting.
Then there is another song by Sting, Epilogue (Nothing ‘Bout Me). The message of that song has stayed with me to this day:
Run my name through your computer
Mention me in passing to your college tutor
Check my records check my facts
Check if I paid my income tax
Pore over everything in my C.V.
But you’ll still know nothing ‘bout me
You’ll still know nothing ‘bout me
So while these large corporations acting as governments by proxy, and the governments themselves collect all this information about me, I remind myself that it’s just information. The words used to describe me, the data points, the metrics, my location, my route, my tastes in music and media, and everything that I have ever posted, has been collected. But it’s just that. There are only three purposes that I can see for collecting all that data on all of us.
Commercial: I get the creepy ads displaying stuff I just talked about in the house with my wife and/or my kids. Or just something that I searched for in research for a purchasing decision.
The war on terrorism: Somebody is really, really worried that I might be a terrorist. You know, like I’d really want to spend the rest of my days plotting the final solution with a bomb. I’m just a simple guy who got married, bought a house, had two kids and is working full time. Most of us are like that. Living and working in peace.
Politics: They want to collect everything on me to know how to poll me for my political tastes. What is my persuasion? All of that can be gleaned from my writings, my posts in social media, and my voting records from the past. My politics can also be gleaned from my political contribution records, too.
The entire spectacle of data collection is really about control. The sad part is, we’re all composed of trillions of cells and multiple trillions of atoms that no one has ever seen directly. We’re a buzzing cloud of elementary particles that have nothing that we can call a “position”. Even our best theories about how those particles work amount to nothing more than probabilities, not certainties. There is no certainty about anything. There isn’t even anything close to what we call, “control” in our daily lives. We can only plan our days and hope that things go according to plan.
So when I buy something, do something, write something or say something, I’m mindful of all that data collection. I sort of “vote” with my phone, my wallet, my browser, and my mouse. If someone is collecting data, I assume that they’re looking at the data and making commercial and political decisions based on my inputs. If my preferences are so important, I deliver in the hopes that someone will notice, because really, I’m a small fry. I’m a row of a gigantic database, in someone’s data pool, being batted about by the Brownian motion of all of the other data around me.
Despite all of this, I have enough for today, and they still know nothing about me.