Is the Road to Cyberpunk Paved with our Privacy?

In Cyberpunk we’re usually experiencing a world where high technology is more than a way of life. It’s everything. The world spins, and spins, and spins, because technology allows it. The history of how the world got to this place of all consuming, ever present, can’t live without it technology– is many times left out entirely, or covered in a paragraph or two of exposition. When did mega-corporations become more powerful than governments? How did humanity get there and what was the journey like? Are we on that path now?

Mass government surveillance keeps us safe. Purchasing histories, gathered by credit card companies, is pumped through machine learning algorithms to detect and protect us from fraud.

altered carbon cover cyberpunk richard k. morgan

(Credit: Blastr)

 

Bots scrape and aggregate our public records, social networking pages, and dating site profiles. Websites make this information freely available, or hide it behind paywalls that only the highest bidders can penetrate. Many of the applications on our phones have access to Wi-Fi, our photos, messages and more. Companies use this access to send a continuous flow of data about each of us to third party data mining companies even when we aren’t actively using the application. These third party companies live to market. Their sole purpose in our world is to tell us what we need, and where we can get it.

Corporations and the apps and services they offer, know our business. They need that information if they are going to solve the everyday problems we face, and streamline the everyday tasks we want to automate. Machine learning, which is at the core of automated assistants like Siri and Alexa and OK Google, require immense amounts of data to offer relevant information. They need access to your email and your calendar so that they can remind you of packages arriving and appointments that are upcoming.

(Credit: MACIEJ KUCIARA)

(Credit: MACIEJ KUCIARA)

There are inherent privacy concerns to these services having access to our data, but the upside is immense. Our books and music and text messages and passwords are all synced across devices. Our calendar is available where ever we need it. Our phones offer us driving directions and before we ask for them. We can order paper towels, from the shower, with our voices.

Social Networking keeps us connected to each other and the world in a way that we have never been before in the history of our species. Books like Feed by M.T. Anderson touch on what an over abundance of external stimuli might do to our interactions with each other in the long run.

A constant stream of GPS data from our cell phones enables Google to explicitly tailor quality search results for each and every one of us. Cloud services allow us to backup our entire digital lives, saving us from ever again losing a photo, email or file. Even if you have your GPS turned off, the Wi-Fi access you granted the applications on your phone are using the wireless access points around you to geolocate you without GPS.

Privacy policies and terms of service–that we almost never read–may grant permission for our information to be utilized by these corporations for marketing and advertising purposes. Much of the data that is gathered is aggregated for the purposes of anonymizing the users it was gathered from. This practice is put in place to protect the privacy of a consumer.

Sociological studies are performed under the nose of consumers on dating and social networking sites with the aim of better understanding behavioral influences for the betterment of science… and marketing. These experiments, often benign, seek to test our responses to various stimuli (or the lack thereof).

Personalized content curation, based on preferences and reading history, protects us from seeing anything we won’t like, or might find disagreeable or upsetting.

Facial recognition software is used to track down criminals, find missing persons, and prevent terrorist attacks. It’s used to help you tag photos on Facebook. It’s used to identify anonymous strangers on the train.

The thread here is convenience. That is the road we are on. We pay for these services with our data for the sake of convenience. We want our location services on so that we can get the curated search results and Google Now cards and Siri driving directions.

(Credit: CNET)

(Credit: CNET)

The hum of global marketing machines grows ever louder as it consumes the always increasing stream of bits that make up our digital lives. Retargeting campaigns follow us across the web, reminding us (ironically) of the Minority Report Blu Ray we abandoned in our Amazon Cart.

Technology is our best friend, our savior. It is our enemy and our detractor. It lifts us to heights we could never hope to reach alone, and threatens our ability to think critically. As often as it informs us objectively, it informs us subjectively. Technology is not inherently good, or bad. It doesn’t pick sides (yet) and it doesn’t have feelings (again, yet). Technology has no agenda but the agenda it has been given.

Corporations continue to grow, fueled by our data. They know us better and better every day. We trust them. We stand in line for days for their products. We all but pray to them.

Is it really that big a leap from the world of today to a dystopian tomorrow?

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Written by Brendan Butts
Brendan lives in Boston. He is an author, web developer and indie game developer. He runs the longest running cyberpunk RPG on the internet: www.sindome.org
17 Comments
  1. What do you mean, “privacy”? You don’t live in The Woods. You don’t live in the shadows. Social beings share common space and in that common space everyone is exposed. You lie – we know about it. You have gonorrhea – others get the warning hint. Governments were never anything more than an administrating structure – too much have people of the nations been deluded to believe that a government is an almighty body – the fear factor used in controlling the masses. Governments were never anything more than a bureaucratic element designed with the purpose to facilitate interactions between the slavemaster and the slaves. Whoever controls the resources – holds the power. You got a land owner who controls food production – you got everyone else dependent on that man for food. You got someone holding control over fiat money production – that man controls your buying capabilities. In a Capitalistic and Consumerism driven economy, politics serve the man in power, keeping population in check via deceit exercising the false mantra of “We regulate the corporations for your interest.” while in realities all they do is administer the lives of common people, bending to the highest bidder holding power. An intricate game. You hope for your government to save you and protect you – you are a fool. You think you have any privacy left, but at the same time you don’t keep your secrets to yourself. A secret shared is no longer a secret. You told your doctor you have herpes – the insurance company now knows. You shared a picture of you and your family on a vacation – the thieves know you are not at home. You go jogging every day at the park, use an app to count your calories burn and you think nobody knows your route? Forget privacy – privacy exists for those who do not use technology, live in the woods and renounce the government, the corporations, the political and economical systems. And that is only the people who did not embrace technology, those who are left behind in the “progress of man. ” Don’t cling to privacy. Don’t give hope to administrative regulators. Don’t trust corporate ethics. The world has changed and the illusion has cracked.

    Reply
    • You are right in so far as if you willingly submit and feed the details of your life into the big data machine, then you really don’t have any privacy worth speaking of. It is however possible to be private, even anonymous, without becoming a luddite. Encryption when browsing through a VPN, using a paid e-mail service with strong encryption options, buying goods and services with bitcoin whenever possible, use security and privacy focused mobile OS forks that allow you to decide when and where you are tracked, etc, etc, etc. I find the situation is quite the opposite to what you describe, moving into the woods won’t protect you or keep you anonymous, it will put you a radar. If you wish to stay private, you’ll need to up your technical skills, become proficient with encryption tools and understand their underlying principles.

      Reply
  2. “Is it really that big a leap from the world of today to a dystopian tomorrow?”

    Playing devil’s advocate: nothing in what you’ve described in the rest of the article is “dystopian” – much of it is described as convenient, with the price paid being that of our privacy – although even that is anonymised so that individuals cannot be identified.

    Reply
    • One person’s convenience is another person’s dystopia. The intrusions of Big Data on our lives is extensive and how that system of data collection and parsing works has already moved into the realm of nefarious. In dark corners of server rooms across the globe wars are being fought over our data. Cowboys from one side are raiding the data bank to gleen what they can in hopes of causing disruption or robbery. A few years ago a group of Russian hackers waltzed into the data banks of banks and skipped out with triple digit billions in currency and data. So in terms of cybercrime it is dystopia now.

      In terms of health, particularly mental and cognitive, the way we produce data and the way data feeds back on us is showing deep brain network problems. We are getting rewired and that is causing a lot of issues, particularly in males. For example there are a number of great studies out now that highlight the brain structure and social adjustments happening around males and pornography in a ubiquitous porn environment tied to big data. The results are pretty dystopia (in a Huxley-esque manner.) Ennui, lack of human connection, lack of empathy, increases in antisocial and sociopathic tendencies, inability to form relationships (especially with women.) This is all part of the dystopia we are living in and expanding in regards to big data and privacy.

      Reply
    • The ‘dystopian’ aspect of Big Data is widely recognized. Check out this article by Ars Technica on Yahoo’s recent patent to do ‘Minority Report’ style advertising by tracking you in public:

      http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/10/yahoo-wants-to-patent-billboards-that-spy-on-the-public-for-targeted-ads/?comments=1

      Reply
    • It’s not really anonymized that heavily though. Sure, some companies do in fact anonymize. I’ve worked in Mobile Advertising for several years on the technology side and the kind of data that is collected on you is very much not anonymized. Your IP address, your browser finger print, your audio stack, your GPS down to SEVEN points of precision (on average, I ran a test with 12 million records to figure out how many we were getting), your OS, and more– it all goes into databases that are not going anywhere. The sheer number of advertising API calls that are made is staggering each time you load a webpage. You’re right, it’s not in and of itself dystopic but what happens when that data is used to start telling you what you need, what your job should be, where you are going to live, if you are a deviant, if you are a political outsider? What happens when governments that do not have the best intentions get access to that data and start to use it to target various sectors of their populations? What happens when data breaches or changes in the law make it possible for potential employers to mine this data and decide that people who look at internet porn or leftist websites or like My Little Pony, are not the kind of people they want to hire. What kind of world does that lead to?

      Reply
      • “What happens when governments that do not have the best intentions get access to that data and start to use it to target various sectors of their populations? ”

        This was what I was expecting to see in the original article and was surprised not to find.

        Privacy, big data etc is pretty much a standard topic within these circles – to Door’s point, it’s widely recognised, but I would argue that it still bears spelling out when having these discussions, and shouldn’t be taken for granted that it’s clearly dystopian, without at least nodding in the direction of “why” it’s dystopian. Especially amongst younger folks, who have grown up with it as a fact of life, as opposed to an older generation who have watched it come in and consciously decided whether they’re ok with it or not – whether to pay the price for convenience or not.

        We sometimes assume that it’s a given, and I don’t think it is, hence me playing devil’s advocate above.

        One of the most horrifying things that’s happened over the past few months in the UK (and that’s saying something) is the push by the newly unelected Prime Minister to get the Snooper’s Charter through without anyone noticing.

        (and if that’s not worthy of attention by cyberpunks, I don’t know what is)

        Reply
        • It was something that I was interested in putting in the original article, but that’s my personal opinion, and I was trying not to slant the article too much. There are definitely benefits to the kind of intrusive hardware and software that we use day to day. I own an Amazon Echo, and it could be monitoring me all the time. So could my xbox. I still have them. I bought the echo so that it would listen, even. I wanted to showcase both sides of the coin. Not just why we should be upset or scared, but also why we generally accept these things.

        • I definitely think it’s worth showing both sides, both the convenience, and the other side. I’m 100% sure that my Jawbone is feeding back data that is being used (as a single data point?) as part of mass surveys.

  3. I think it also makes it dystopian that most of this is happening without any kind of consent. Using the internet at all, without serious work to be anonymous, means you are leaking data everywhere you go. Marketers then turn this information around in an attempt to control what you buy, that might be convenient, but it also borders on mind control.

    Reply
    • I largely agree – mainly around the consent. Marketing per se doesn’t bother me, particularly (it’s just refinement of techniques that existed before the internet); it’s the other applications of that data that make me twitchy.

      I’m currently being stalked around the internet by something called Tile (a piece of plastic with a bluetooth transmitter that you hook onto your keys and it helps you locate them by pinging anyone, strangers included, who has the app installed to narrow down a location) which I looked at about four weeks ago and haven’t looked at since. Fine, whatever.

      It’s the other things I might look at, eg politics, that bother me.

      Reply
  4. What is it with you and privacy? What do you have to hide? Go Adam before Eve’s apple. Go naked as a native of a jungle tribe. The worst thing that can happen is that you die.

    Reply
    • You want to expand on that a little?

      Reply
      • What do any of us have to hide? The argument ‘I have nothing to hide so why should I worry’ is counter productive. It’s been touched on a few times but let me give you a worst case scenario: You have nothing to hide right now, but in five years when something you did ever day, has become illegal, your data-mined social information and location data are used to persecute you retroactively.

        Can you say with 100% certainty that something like that wouldn’t happen?

        Reply
    • “What do you have to hide?” Even if you don’t think you do, your employer or the school you are attending or applying to care about what you say or do. Your world view or personal activities are scrutinized. Do you speak out against the preferred candidate? Do you have pictures showing you with a solo cup in hand? What do those things mean? “Go Adam before Eve’s apple.” There is no way to be free of the knowledge of good and evil.

      Reply
  5. Quite.

    I’m on record as being anti-Brexit. A couple weeks ago, one of our MPs tabled a motion that anyone who is anti-Brexit should be charged with treason.

    In the UK, the most notable thing about treason is that it’s the only crime to still carry the death penalty.

    (He got roundly shouted down and dismissed. For now)

    Do I have anything to hide?

    No. Not for now. But who knows what, in the future, may be considered worthy of note?

    Reply
  6. And it isn’t just about “I” have to hide. There are journalists who require anonymity for themselves and for sources, there are critics of the government (any government), and even sexual assault victims who wish to hide from their abusers. We need to maintain privacy so that these individuals can be protected from unjust reprisals.

    Reply

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