Tag: Data

I am my Data: WSJ Reports Planes Used in Spying Program

Design By Joseph Lapin
Design By Joseph Lapin

Right now, I’m sitting at the bar in Thorn Street Brewery in North Park, San Diego, drinking an American Strong Ale. B.B. King is on the radio, and a bartender is pouring pints, and she looks like one of the characters out of a Denis Johnson short story. This place feels like it’s about to turn into a juke joint, as they’re now blaring the “Mess Around,” glasses are clinking, and people are talking loudly over the music. The bartender is now shaking her hips, trying to tease the tips out of the wallets. What I’m thinking about is turning to the bald guy in the teal polo sitting on the stool next to me and telling him about a story I read recently in the Wall Street Journal, but I think he would end up thinking I was the neighborhood mad man.

Basically, I want to tell this guy next to me and the old woman drinking a beer in front of me like it’s a hot tea about the brand new American spy program. I want to tell them all about how “the Justice Department is scooping up data from thousands of mobile phones through devices deployed on airplanes that mimic cellphone towers,” as reported by the WSJ. I want to tell them that this program has been instituted secretly since 2007, and it’s really freaking brilliant and scary and wrong and right all at the same time. I want to say this as I hear stiletto heels clomping along the hardwood floors and the bartender now complains how she is so hungover from her birthday last night.

Here’s what happens: the Cessna aircraft “mimic cell towers … and trick cellphones into reporting” their data in hopes of tracking down terrorists or drug dealers. The technology is so impressive that it’s reported to be able to pinpoint targets “under investigation by the government,” and it sweeps thousands of phones at the same time in order to nail down the targets exact location, even within a massive skyscraper, while pushing aside ‘innocent bystanders and “letting go” of their data.

Of course, the Justice Department is neither confirming or denying the report, but they are defending the action by the U.S. Marshals Service, as reported by several sources, and it’s in line with a much larger stance that our government has taken on data: Whatever works for the greater good and security of our country is within the Constitution and, yes, The Dark Knight.

But how many people were shocked by this news? I mean, Kim Kardashian broke the Internet, and it wasn’t the news of another American spy program. Now, relax, I’m not trying to get on a high horse here and discuss why it’s important that we pay attention to the news over celebrities showing their gorgeous and stunning booties (We only have one life [unless you’re a buddhist], and if you want to spend it cramming your brain with celebrities asses and their petty relationships, then I support you; I watch plenty of ESPN), but what really just shocks me is that we still don’t care that our data is being harvested like Monsanto corn and that we still don’t see this massive data collection as an invasion of privacy.

I actually argued this in a Salon article I wrote after I heard that our government admitted to the existence of Area 51, and I’m still trying to make this point today. (People shredded my article on the comment boards.) As a country, we’re so used to our authorities lying to us, spying on us, fucking with us, playing with us, tricking us, mind-fucking us, that we eventually stopped being shocked, we stopped being scared, we stopped caring.

The truth is planes collecting our data on a massive scale with approval from an actual court system that is relatively secret isn’t thought of as shocking anymore. Think about it: we’ve since this well before Will Smith starred in I, Robot. Remember Enemy of the State? This isn’t even the only movie that shows how invaded our civil liberties are in terms of data collection. There are countless.

Our pop culture and news have reported on data invasion more times than Kevin Bacon has appeared in films. I feel somewhat bad for the WSJ. They broke a gigantic story, but it’s already old. It’s almost a footnote in the battle for civil liberties in the digital age. I mean, this is what the ACLU said in the WSJ article:

Maybe it’s worth violating privacy of hundreds of people to catch a suspect, but is it worth thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of peoples’ privacy?

So yes, I get it. I’m not an idiot. Advancing technology can have a gigantic impact on the protection of our country. Yes, it’s important to use these new techniques to capture dangerous criminals in order to safeguard our communities, our people, our children, our infrastructure, the very bedrock of the American people. It’s important that I can have the freedom and the safety to sit in this bar and criticize my government while B.B. King just seduces Lucille with so much charm and sex that it feels the sound is about to melt the walls. (Yeah, I’m going overboard with my metaphors, but that’s my right as an American [lol!].) I’m not trying to take the stance that data can’t be used to help fight crime, but I am against the idea that collecting my data isn’t an invasion of privacy.

When the U.S. Marshals fly over “most of the U.S. population” collecting the remnants of my cellphone, I take that personally. I read that as they’re literally snatching pieces of my unconscious and conscious thoughts. What I surf on my phone, my location, my texts, my browsing history are really intensely personal parts of my existence. It’s like when someone drives your car and rifles through your music collection or the police walk into your home and check your browsing history or that Spotify is sharing with the world what you’re currently listening to without fully being cognizant of this information.

I am my data, and when I was born as an American, I didn’t sign a freaking terms of service that allowed the government to invade my privacy. I take offense to my government collecting my data with planes and fake cell phone towers without my permission, without my knowledge. Perhaps I would be all right with this type of security if I was given the options and the collection of my data was guaranteed to be private, but I don’t trust my government yet. I believe that whatever technology the media reports on the Justice Department will already be 1,ooo steps behind what  technology their currently using to “protect” our lives and invade them at the same time.

Wow, someone in the bar behind me just yelled, “you’re a fucking sniper.” Well, that’s it. I’m signing out from North Park, San Diego. Remember, your comments are always appreciated — especially if you disagree with me.

My Response to OkCupid’s Defense of Social Experimentation

Design by Joseph Lapin
Design by Joseph Lapin

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal “Review” section, Christian Rudder, president and one of the founders of OkCupid, wrote an article titled “When Websites Spy on Private Lives,” where the Harvard math grad discusses the experiments he runs on the data generated from OkCupid. It’s an incredibly engaging read that does two things: 1. Creates a bunch of buzz about his new book “Dataclysm” and 2. complicates how data mining and collecting private information from the traces we leave on the Internet should be perceived. His article was in response to the backlash he received when he published a post on OkCupid’s company blog outlining some of the experiments his site has been conducting. The title of the blog post: “We Experiment on Human Beings!

Basically, in the article, Rudder is trying to, clearly, defend his actions, promote his book, and cause trouble, but he’s also posing a question that is absolutely fundamental to our contemporary lives: Is mining the data of our personal information a benefit to society?

Screen shot taken from OkCupid blog.
Screen shot taken from OkCupid blog.

To sum it up, Rudder is arguing that his company is not just benefiting from the mining of consumer data; the world is too. “Websites are amassing information that holds enormous social potential,” Rudder writes. “The data our users generate helps companies improve their sites and make money; that’s a story that most people know. But that same data could also unlock new ways of understanding society and new kinds of science.”

It’s hard to argue with Rudder that mining data can help people understand society, but it’s also hard to take that argument in concert with how that data benefits his company financially. As Rudder illustrates in the experiments on the people who are searching companionship and love on his site, the data is able to help him better understand what his users are looking for in relationships. He can improve his business. But strangely, the experiments helped point out that users are more likely to connect with other users if the site tells them they are compatible even if they’re not. In a sense, his experiment showed that users on OkCupid wanted to be told who is a companion, and their algorithm was not nearly as important as persuasion.

Rudder’s tone comes across like a mad-scientist entrepreneur who thinks he’s figured out how to crack social problems by mining data, and while he seems a little gruff and inappropriate, he does illustrate how OkCupid’s experiments can lead to interesting social behavior, because he can examine  behavior from users when these users think no one is watching, even though Rudder clearly is. For example, in the blog post on experiments, he learns that there is some racism happening in the online dating world. The New York Times pulled this from Rudder’s new book:

“As a group, for instance, Latino men rated Latinas as 13 percent more attractive than the average for the site, while they rated African-American women 25 percent less attractive. In fact, Mr. Rudder reports, black women on the site receive about 25 percent fewer first messages than other women do. For Mr. Rudder, these numbers unequivocally tell a story of racism.”

Okay, so you learned that we’re racist from our data. No shit.

Yes, clearly we can learn a lot about social behavior from the traces we leave behind on the Internet, from our clicks, from the content of our messages (even though you don’t need to mine the content of website to find racism still exists), but I’m not sure that I gave anyone permission to use me in a social experiment. In fact, I don’t think Rudder has the right to conduct social experiments. Sure, I understand what he’s trying to accomplish. He’s trying to argue that the collection of the content of messages, our clicks, our responses to other personalities online, when collected and analyzed will inform the world on human behavior; but it will also fuel his company. It also still feels like a major injustice to privacy. I just imagine Rudder sitting on the hill in his evil mansion, trying to find the thread that runs through all of humanity to figure us out. This is a strange, social engineering conceit that makes me uncomfortable.

I see the benefits of using my data, but what I think is the problem is that many people don’t really understand the lengths our information is used for social experimentation, targeted marketing, etc. Sure, the data is said to be collected anonymously and swirled around in some metaphorical vat of binary code or whatever bullshit they’re selling, but that data is me in there. I might only be a small portion of that data, but it’s me. And I believe my identity isn’t something you should just be able to trade and sell like a commodity.

Design by Joseph Lapin
Design by Joseph Lapin

But here is where things get complicated for me. I do see the benefit of collection of data from smart phones for smart cities. For example, if there was a city-run system where data could be collected and communicated with other parts of the city and DOT, then traffic could be handled differently. The collection of data from our homes could inform better environmental practices. There are benefits to collecting data and analyzing from a health perspective, too. Think about how Big Data could help the Ebola crisis? And perhaps I would be comfortable with this type of data collection if it was anonymous.

(What does anonymous collection of data actually mean? Who is out there ensuring that it is anonymous?)

The truth is that now we know how much our browsing history, our clicks, our time spent on a page can inform others about our behavior, well, I think it’s just time that we start seeing our computers, our smart phones, as an extension of our mind. We have the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. For example, our conscious mind is our browsing behavior, but the information mined from our data can provide insight into our subconscious mind. I don’t want marketing companies knowing more about my identity than a psychologist. I don’t want the Christian Rudders of the world sifting through the collected mind of America to try and better understand who we are. I don’t want him to rationalize data collection and privacy invasion by hiding behind social experimentation. I don’t want dating services, Google, Facebook, etc, to rationalize their creepy experiments without our consent by hiding behind the phrase: “We’re gaining a deeper understanding of humanity.”  I want transparency.

If making society a better place through understanding is a company’s goal, then they should say it up front. Don’t hide behind  terms and agreements. Be up front with people. Make that a part of your business. Be transparent.

In reality, I do think we can learn a lot about humanity through Big Data, but that power in the wrong hands scares me. The power to manipulate countless people through a change to a website is just a bit bizarre — almost Dr. Moreau-like. I don’t have an answer to the privacy debate. In fact, I feel that we’re already down a huge rabbit hole, and I have very little control over the outcome of how privacy will be defined in the 21st century, but I just wanted to stand up and say, slow down. My mind is not for you to experiment with. And neither is my browsing history.