Beyond CA: The Elephant On Your Desk and In Your Pocket

Illustration by Kentoh/DepositPhotos.

When the Cambridge Analytica scandal planted its flag on the shores of Trinidad and Tobago, the Attorney General was quick to respond to it, as well anyone in that Office should. The masses, though, didn’t truly seem to understand it, and even tech people seemed more opinionated than informed.

The trouble is understanding what Network Power is while listening to people standing too close to the elephant: They can’t see the actual elephant.

The Trunk.
The trunk is the easiest part to identify on an elephant. We’ll start with that.

We should all know by now that we should be more secure in what we share online, as the latest BitDepth#1138, “What now for Facebook Users?”, informs those who should be reminded in this day and age. Being secure is to be thoughtful, and one thing that is apparent to the thoughtful person on a social network is how many people are not thoughtful. Everything has repercussions – we should be reminded of this when we look at how High Court Judge Frank Seepersad made his landmark case related to social media postings only a month ago.

That’s all pretty straightforward. Be careful what you share and be careful what you write; it has repercussions when dealing with identity theft and being a good netizen.

Tightening your own security for your privacy makes sense in this context – so what you share now  should be something you revise. However, if you’ve already shared it on the Internet, it’s already in the wild; someone may already have it. And if it’s been shared with the company that hosts the site, who owns the site, they know regardless of your settings. There’s nothing to really be done about it except learn from the mistake: Be thoughtful in what you share.

The Ears
Everything you do on the Internet is stored somewhere. To track it all down, you’d need a lot of lawyers to go through user agreements you clicked through without reading and some technical know-how. In a study published in 2016 , people agreed to giving up their first born child by clicking through without reading.

I was reminded of this recently while at Republic Bank and signing into their wireless network for customers – requiring me to scroll through a hot mess of legalese made worse by the inability to use paragraphing. Who reads that? No one. Why? It’s designed that way – just as tech people speak a language that makes others eyes roll back in their heads, so do lawyers when writing user agreements.
This is such a problem that conscientious organizations have made, ‘human readable’ versions of these agreements.

All this data collected on you isn’t just what you share, as we saw above. It’s also what you do, who and what you interact with, and even the times of day that you’re using these sites. An example: Target, the store in the United States, knew a teenager was pregnant before her father did. She didn’t volunteer it, it came from simple data analysis.

You know that shopper’s card you use at those stores so you can get a discount, or maybe that turkey for Christmas? Same concept, only it’s done at the store. On the Internet, when you think you’re being safe, secure and that you have a measure of privacy, you’d be surprised what others know about you. Daniel J. Solove, an international privacy expert, uses the term ‘digital shadow’.

Wait. That’s not all.

All those cards you use to get discounts at places are used to track you as well, and while it’s not directly on the Internet, does the company have the right to sell what they learn about your spending habits to other companies? Probably. While you were waiting to get that card, did you read anything that said that they wouldn’t share that information?

Your digital shadow isn’t just what you share online, it’s the result of analysis of what you do online and even offline that finds it’s way into databases. People have been denied jobs, loans and scholarships over their digital shadows.

When we first see someone who is categorized as overweight, we make assumptions. Maybe we think that they eat too much. Maybe we think that they don’t exercise enough. Maybe we think that they are out of shape. Yet none of these things may be true – and we know at some level, or should, that judging anyone like that is at least inappropriate.

That’s exactly how your digital shadow is judged. It also doesn’t allow for change in the future – your digital shadow is doomed to what you have done in the past. This is the backbone of the economy of the Internet these days – your habits, your digital shadow, and what can be gleened from that information.

With it comes the fatal flaw that none of the ‘experts’ in this field really talk about much:

We are, in the eyes of algorithms, what we were, and not what we can be – never-mind what we should be.

Yet there are publishers who see things differently. Notably, Linux Journal, where Doc Searls wrote, “Help Us Cure Online Publishing of Its Addiction to Personal Data”:

Since the turn of the millennium, online publishing has turned into a vampire, sucking the blood of readers’ personal data to feed the appetites of adtech: tracking-based advertising. Resisting that temptation nearly killed us.

But now that we’re alive, still human and stronger than ever, we want to lead the way toward curing the rest of online publishing from the curse of personal-data vampirism. And we have a plan…

Realistically, it’s an uphill battle by a niche publication in a niche technical space that local IT people, doomed by their own hand to the caverns Microsoft created, are unlikely to tell you about. Realistically, too, it’s a response to what their readers want, which leads back to the conversations mentioned long ago in the Cluetrain Manifesto. Unfortunately, Doc Searls points out elsewhere that the Cambridge Analytica problem Facebook has had is nothing compared to what is coming to online publishing.  

And this, incidentally, is how Fake News is made real. Based on the data of all the digital shadows, one can conjure stories that will be shared by the masses such that their existence becomes their own truth – all catered to by our collective digital shadows.

And this, friends, is what Cambridge Analytica was allegedly going to do in Trinidad and Tobago, and whether it was actually done or not is something we don’t know.

What I do know is that at least one political party has a map with some of the basics that would lead to digital shadow information – and I know this because one member of that political group made a bad judgement in asking myself, a privacy advocate, to work on it.

I walked away and know nothing further than that – that financiers of a political party might gain such access to data, much less a political party, to influence the public… in 2011, I found that troublesome. Yet no laws were broken.

We’re getting better about thinking about those Laws – but the jury is out on whether those Laws will be effective. My opinions on them are public.

Of course, conspiracy theories about governments are always involved in these things – but let’s face it: Government bureaucracies, unless given a lot of funding to get the best brains and keep them and let them run unrestrained, are incapable of such things.

Yet they create Law that harnesses the private sector to do their bidding… allowing them access to data obtained for profit, allowing access to data for the government to gain what it believes is insight into you.

Unfortunately, it measures you only by what you have done – not what you will do, what you can do, who you really are. Without the context of a person’s life, we are all found wanting.

The Body
The Internet is the body – not that idea that everyone has since it itself is an elephant people stand too close to, thus not truly understanding it holistically.

It’s not the dream many of us had when it first started; where we lived on a planet that shared information to make the world a better place. In our own naivete, we created systems that are exploitable to ends of causing divisiveness, spreading fake news, and influencing people to do small things such as buying things that they do not need. We’re also seeing now that influencing people to affect elections, corrupting the ideas of democracy and further corrupting governance.

The cloud. Web servers everywhere. GSM networks tracking your mobile phones. Big Brother is a reality in a very Orwellian world. Speaking for myself and those I know of my generation, this isn’t what we wanted. That we built it for other things hardly seems important now, yet this is when it is most important. This is why Internet Governance issues need to be paid more than lip service by the world.

The body, the Internet, is the backyard of so many of us – yet we don’t take the time to look over it. In many ways, it’s an embarrassment.

This is why Internet Governance is important to help regulate the body. This is a tricky thing, since regulating networks through bureaucracy is still tedious and difficult – and while the world moves forward faster and faster, bureaucracy does not. It’s the dichotomy of our time – old systems vs. new, slow vs. fast.

It is a time to be thoughtful, not a time to be thoughtless.

The Legs
The economy is what keeps the Internet going, and the Internet is what keeps the economy going. Every technology must have an economy around it for it to be sustainable, and our first brush with an Internet economy has built us the body we have. Targeted advertising that tracks your actions on the Internet.

The body of this elephant revolves around your digital shadow. It revolves around all of our digital shadows. We are what gives the elephant legs every time we click ‘like’, search for things on a search engine, what we share, what we buy online, and now, even where we have been based on our mobile phones.

Every click you make, every quiz you take, they’ll be watching you – and making a sculpture in your image that they will say is you.

Wagging The Elephant
The tail consists of the companies using our digital shadows to sell us stuff, to influence us, to influence elections, and so on. Make no mistake, the tail is presently in charge – and what it’s doing we only get glimpses of here and there. Some of it happens in trade agreements that none of us see, some of it happens as we tap away at sculpting our digital shadows into a mimicry of who we really are.

Those websites you visit all the time? They’re a part of it. And the companies that purchase that data, and government entities that gain access to that data – all of that is the tail.

What You Can Do

  1. The first thing you can do is think about your digital shadow, and the best way to do that is to take a look at the advertising and content that Facebook and other sites select for you. What does offer you for sale? These are the responses to your digital shadow.

    When I first got an Amazon Echo in the U.S., I bought it so I could take it apart and I had a cough. A few days later, as I was firing up my Amazon Kindle, there was an advertisement for cough syrup. Was that a coincidence? Unlikely, but correlation isn’t actually causation, so I can’t say that’s what happened. I wasn’t comfortable with even the slightest suspicion that my apartment had more open data than the Trinidad and Tobago government gives to it’s citizens. Someone else has that Echo now, a random person, at least muddying those waters.

    Once you realize what your digital shadow looks like based on what stories show up in your feeds, or what advertising you are shown. And if you’re not the only one who uses your phone, tablet or computer, realize that your digital shadow is an aggregation of all of the users actions. After you assess these things – by all means, take your time and think about it – you might decide to be more or less restrictive in how you approach the following things:

  2. If you’re not the only user on the computer or tablets, set up different accounts for different users. Yes, you might have to learn some things, but that’s par for the course.

  3. Social networking sites like Facebook: Crank down your privacy settings as you see fit, or leave them altogether. Please don’t litter when you leave with an overdramatic goodbye post.

  4.  Install Privacy Badger that is put out by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). While you’re there, read some stuff that the EFF have been doing so that you become better informed.

  5. Turn off dictation on your mobile devices. Sure, they might not be listening, but it’s always listening for something. It’s in the settings of the device.

  6. You might want to remove GPS tracking on your phone, depending on how stringent you want to be.

Of course, the most effective thing to do is to not use the Internet at all – but it’s a really bad time to become a Luddite. The second most effective thing is to become an informed and educated netizen, and that starts with being conscientious and thoughtful of what you share online – and even offline.

Taran Rampersad

Taran Rampersad has over three decades of experience working with technology, the majority of which was as a software engineer.

He is a published author on virtual worlds and was part of the team of writers at that won the Utne Award.

He is an outspoken advocate of simplifying processes and bending technology’s use to society’s needs.

His volunteer work related to technology and disasters has been mentioned by the media (BBC), and is one of the plank-owners of combining culture with ICT in the Caribbean (ICT) through CARDICIS and has volunteered time towards those ends.

As an amateur photographer, he has been published in educational books, magazines, websites and NASA’s ‘Sensing The Planet’.

These days, he’s focusing more on his writing and technology experiments. Feel free to contact him through Facebook Messenger.