Whenever the topic of data privacy comes up, I often hear people say they don’t care because ‘I don’t have anything to hide’. If you disagree with this comment, great! Otherwise, please read on.
When someone says they have nothing to hide, I usually ask for their passwords. It’s meant to get folks thinking a bit deeper. Why bother with passwords if you don’t need privacy? That question is often shrugged off, or maybe I get an admission about watching porn. But unfortunately it’s more complicated than that.
A few years ago, a Stanford study showed how a computer could take someone’s seemingly meaningless Facebook ‘likes’ and create a detailed personality profile (https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/michal-kosinski-end-privacy). The computer didn’t care if you were liking photos of a cat or your cousin’s vacation. It just wanted your data. And with only 10 likes… the computer could predict your personality better than your co-workers. With 100 likes it knew your personality better than your family members. And with 200 likes… the computer could create a personality assessment better than your spouse.
The only reason we know about this is because it was an academic study. Big Tech never shares details about their ‘proprietary software’.
How it works is complex, but the basic idea is that your ‘meaningless’ personal data (such as Facebook likes) is used to match you with other people who have similar ‘meaningless’ data. And those other people are asked to provide detailed personality assessments. So because the computer knows the personality of the other people, it can figure out your personality after matching you to them using the ‘meaningless’ data.
Humans can’t make these sorts of connections, so it seems out of reach. But computers will effortlessly churn through massive amounts of data and find matches. If you want to go down the rabbit hole on how it’s done, take a look at Machine Learning (https://www.technologyreview.com/2018/11/17/103781/what-is-machine-learning-we-drew-you-another-flowchart/).
So now what? Well Big Tech says they just want to get to know you better so they can provide you with a better user experience. And I’m sure that’s true. But what else? Right now I’m less concerned if a computer determines my personality so it can suggest a new Netflix movie. The immediate problem is when the computer determines the personality of every individual in my neighborhood, or town or state… Then becomes possible to influence ‘at scale’.
So the next time you ‘like’ a stupid photo of a racoon with it’s head stuck in a jar, just remember that you might be feeding data into someone else’s algorithm. And that algorithm will eventually know your personality better than a human ever could. Or you can harden your digital footprint. The sooner the better.