The stories turn up daily: Social media is being used to undermine democracy. Someone has run off with millions of Social Security numbers stored by a major financial institution. Internet service providers are selling our browsing history to marketers. There are machine-learning algorithms that literally don’t see black people. Facebook has apologized (again) for something horrible it has facilitated (again).
This stream of bad news showcases the far-reaching impact of how our personal data is used — and misused. I’d say we’re in a crisis, but in the interest of positivity and solutions-oriented thinking, I’ll call it “an opportunity.” This moment of deep distrust in big tech gives us an opportunity to rewrite the rules, formal and informal, governing how the data we generate is collected, used, and valued. In doing that, we can write a different future for ourselves.
Right now, a few pioneering companies — big platforms like Facebook, Google, and Amazon — are extracting most of the value from the data that’s being collected whenever we power up our laptops, write an email, go anywhere with our phone in our pocket, take a photograph, talk to Alexa. In exchange, these companies offer us photo storage or messaging or upgraded mapping. But there’s a lot more happening behind the scenes.
We could each try to make a difference on our own. We could engage in the latest version of #Delete[Name of Popular Service], install virtual private networks, and live inside homemade Faraday cages where we exchange information exclusively via encrypted USB sticks transported by armed carrier pigeons. But individual acts alone won’t move the needle. They rarely do. (See: climate change.)
Since companies value us collectively, we must restore balance with a collective response that is based on the view that we’re in this together — that our rights and responsibilities are shared. It’s one of the reasons I’m an advisor at Data & Society, a research institute in New York focused on the challenges wrought by data-centric technological development. (The other reason is free Wi-Fi.)
Here is my first draft proposal for restoring some balance and trust between the tech…