Monday, 24 September 2018

It's government's use of data we should fear not the private sector's algorithms

There's data everywhere. Piles and piles of lovely data. Wherever you look there's more of the stuff - from what we've clicked, from where we've visited, from words we've used and, just occasionally, from what we've bought. And because vast dunes of this data have accumulated, clever computer folks have started to mine the data. With the result that bloggers, journalists and politicians begin to get fretful abut these algorithms.

Just a day or so ago Angela Phillips, a journalism professor from Goldsmiths was calling for "a new search engine based on public service ideas of what an algorithm should be" reminding us that people with tenured positions at respected universities really don't know what they're talking about. Professor Phillips said the idea would be mocked but that Labour should put it in their manifesto anyway. Which brings me to fennel:
The most significant item, the chief data officer told me—the one that gives you away as a responsible, house-proud person more than any other—was fresh fennel.
You see (or so this chief data officer from an unnamed insurance company would have it), buying fennel is a sure indicator you're a 'home cook' and home cooks are less likely to make insurance claims. Using this vital knowledge, we are now being cunningly manipulated by crafty chief data folk with their algorithms (wicked ones based on private sector ideas of course).

I'm reminded of one of my database marketing golden rules - do you know why those people want that information from you? If they're a business, the answer is easy - they want to flog you something (or flog the data to someone else who wants to flog you something). It's all very straightforward, honest and open - businesses use data to improve their business which is pretty much the least sinister thing you can do with data.

It's much harder to answer the question when it's the government (or one of its agencies) wanting the data. Sometimes there's a good answer - it's needed to deliver a service, for example - but mostly the reasons for the government wanting enormous warehouses of data about us is at best opaque and often quite sinister. Most commonly the rationale is about 'protection' (hence the reluctance of police services to dispose of DNA data from people when they conclude enquiries) but you'll also see arguments about 'developing better policy', 'planning' or even 'equalities'.

The arguments for building huge comprehensive data sets, however, are dominated by a belief that government is only possible these days with this sort of information about people. And the purpose isn't to make folks' lives better by selling them good things but rather to make it easier for government to control what you do (they call this regulation most of the time but sometimes it gets mixed up with taxation or a new-fangled control system call "nudge").

The end result (and remember that the British are the most surveilled, spied on and watched people in any democracy) looks like this:
But in 2020, when the citizen scoring system becomes mandatory, people with low scores stand to feel the repercussions in every aspect of their lives. The government’s own document on the system outlines examples of punishments that could be meted out to anyone deemed disobedient: “Restrictions on leaving the borders, restrictions on the purchase of… property, travelling on aircraft, on tourism and holidays or staying in star-ranked hotels.” It also warns that in the case of “gravely trust-breaking subjects,” it will “guide commercial banks… to limit their provision of loans, sales insurance, and other such services.” Loyalty is praised. Breaking trust is punished.
Your behaviour is scored, your activities are ranked against some sort of "socially acceptable" board and citizens are rewarded or punished on the basis of their conformity. This is, in case you missed the point, precisely what an algorithm based on "public service ideas" delivers because the purposes of government are (in origin with good reason) to control what we do, to protect us and to support us. Even when we think we don't need controlling, protecting or supporting. And it doesn't matter that the data is often fennel-like in its rubbishness.

It is because government's motives are unclear (and sometimes sinister) that we should resist their growing accumulation and exploitation of data, It for these reasons that the convenience of ID numbers and cards must be opposed. And it's for these reasons that the whipping up of sinister conspiracies by agents of government (just look at the nonsense about Cambridge Analytica, for example and the manner in which a (relatively) few Russian 'bots' caused such moral panic) should not be used to justify regulating the Internet.


1 comment:

Mark Wadsworth said...

Agreed, everybody slags off Google and FB and so on, but the worst that can happen is you get pop up ad's for stuff you bought last week.