This series of posts have been about the manipulation of democracy, on both sides of the Atlantic, by a new generation of internet-based personal data collection tools. These tools feed on the information we – wittingly or unwittingly – provide to social media applications like Facebook and Google. We have seen how a small number of our opinions, expressed on such social media, may provide a comprehensive inference of our voting intentions, laying us vulnerable to instantly presented information – or disinformation, in the case of the past twelve months.
Equipped with products like NationBuilder, a team of people carrying out political canvassing on the doorstep will already know what your voting intentions are likely to be. Their message to you may appear to be a traditional reinforcement of a party political manifesto, but it could equally be an entirely fictitious reference to a script that has been created by organisations who use that tool to cast doubt in your mind. The tool isn’t doing this, but it is enabling those who build the message – sometimes hundreds of thousands of different messages – to falsify or subtly bend the truth, as in my experience, related in Part One of these posts.
There is no law against lying to the public, as long as you do it under the cover of a political process. That is the sad conclusion drawn by experts across the world, following the turbulent events of 2016. The UK has data protection laws, as, increasingly, has the EU. But neither country applies the law to the truth of what is given out as fact in elections. In the US, there is no single public data protection statute, though different states have their own, many of which conflict with each other. (source)
We need to consider the trade we make when we use social media. We do not pay for the use of a very sophisticated suite of applications, at least not up-front. Instead, we give the platform providers the right to use our data. Few of us ever read the small print. I understand that trade-off with advertising, having been in the software business for many years. I’m perfectly happy for Facebook or Google to show me images of what they think I might want to buy. Sometimes, I do click on them to buy something, so, it works, and allows the social media platform to make its money – but not as much money as they can make in an election year…
More sophisticated use is frequently made of our data if we respond to one of the ‘you won’t believe what this resulted in…’ type of sensationalised banner, in similar style to a tabloid newspaper. You may then be led, unknowingly, to, ‘install’ a product such as NationBuilder, which will live alongside your social media tool, collecting your political data. If you haven’t checked, click on your settings and see whether this is hitching a ride on your life… Remember, these system run on the internet, so they don’t need to download to your computer, just run alongside what you already have in some distant server farm. Again, there is nothing illegal about such software, but the use to which that data is put – the motives of the end user who wishes to engineer public opinion in a targeted sector of the population – is increasingly seen as immoral and hostile to an open and truthful political process.
The fault here does not lie with the technology. The IT business has been offering ‘data-mining’ for a generation. What is new is the willingness to shift the process of opinion-farming into dubious practice that should lie outside the law, but doesn’t.
I have watched a fascinating process for many years as new ‘elites’ are generated in society. During the 1970s and for a period of thirty years, it was IT, itself, that attracted a generation of bright minds. The latest was the growth of the power of international banking, mirroring that of the internet. In each case, a small group at the top of the pile viewed themselves as above the law. In each case, new laws were required to protect the public – the ‘little people’ to quote a popular phrase among the ultra-rich investment banking community.
It may be too late… The ability to understand the complexity of modern commercial, political and governmental processes, all of which rely on embedded computing and the internet, may be beyond all but the few. Most of these few will have been seduced by the lucrative returns they can make in commerce. I am a proponent of business, having run my own company for two decades. I consider business to have been the engine of social progress – but only as it long as it serves the common good.
What we lack are laws and funding that extend the rule of law into all such dubious aspects of society, so that electoral manipulation is as much subject to scrutiny as banking… though the latter has yet to mature, as well.
There are many voices raised in support of this. The latest is the founder of the internet, himself – Tim Berners Lee. In a recent article in the Guardian newspaper, he makes many of the points raised in this series of three posts, but with much more authority than I can. His comments on governmental mass surveillance make sober reading as well, especially in a week that has seen the Wikileaks revelations about ‘smart’ domestic devices being able to listen into our home comforts… Anyone remember the chapter in George Orwell’s 1984 where the speaker on the wall tells Winston and his love that they’d better get dressed?
Why aren’t we chilled at all this? Have we become numb to it all? Is the fear of terrorism really enough justification to change all our lives in ways that may never be reversible? Is it simply ‘bread and circuses’ – keeping the masses happy with sport and shopping while those running our lives do the ‘hard stuff’? Or, have we simply become soft? In a period of relative prosperity have we forgotten the need to struggle for the truth? History, for those few who still study it, paints a vivid portrait of what happens, next…
Philosophically, we should question those who seek to control for a living, in all its forms. Life thrives on freedom, but freedom needs laws to control its excesses. Never before have we so needed the spirit and letter of the law to be strengthened to protect human rights. Never before have we so needed that new generation of lawyers to come forward with a will to protect society and its values beyond their personal pocket.
When you see newspaper headlines accusing the country’s most senior judges of being ‘the enemy of the people’ then it’s time to worry most of all… The Law may be occasionally pompous, but it’s the best friend we’ve got.
Original content©Copyright Stephen Tanham 2017
Other parts of this series: