Who’s afraid of Big Bad Data?

The recent brutal crackdown on activist hackers such as Aaron Schwartz, Bradley Manning and dozens of Anonymous activists has run parallel with media praise of private sector ‘Big Data’ initiatives. New, privacy-compromising technologies such as Google Glass are eagerly anticipated while unpaid hacktivists are hounded mercilessly by international police. Information is gathered on us constantly, at all hours of the day, analyzed and made for sale. It’s legal when big companies like Google do it, and illegal when done as protest. The message is clear: privacy breaches are fine when they are hidden away in 38-page user agreements laced with opaque legal reasoning, but not when they are done to challenge business interests or the governments that protect them. Why is this the case?

Marketing companies that know how much money you earn, where you like to shop, or who you are likely to vote for, look like are a natural part of our growing, data-driven economy. Obtaining and publishing tax returns from presidential candidates running for public office, on the other hand, somehow becomes much more ethically fraught. Google Glass might empower people to discreetly take photos of women on the subway – or protesters at a march – and upload them to a social network without consent. Privately owned satellites and mapping cameras take photos of streets corners and the insides of people’s houses. The information you put on Facebook can be plugged into data algorithms and predict whether you are homosexual, a drug user, or if your parents are divorced. If the friendly cars driving around with cameras strapped to the top were branded with Homeland Security seals, or if the familiar interface of social media sites had ‘.gov’ addresses, we would be suspicious and concerned about privacy, and rightly so. Yet, when private interests run these initiatives, we are trusting and compliant, even when the government functionally has access to the same information.

If a hacker uses their computer to release data that is in the public interest, such as information on the Iraq war or academic research paid for with public money, they are treated by the justice system as worse criminals than rapists and murderers. No one has been raped or murdered as a result of Wikileaks, or friends sharing an academic database login, but what happened was widespread embarrassment of governments and corporations. Again, the message is clear: exposing these entities, implicating them in crimes or offering up their inner-workings to public scrutiny is unacceptable – treated worse than rape and murder.

The broad acceptance of this trend in privacy double-think comes from the individualist culture that is central to neoliberalism. Everything is about me. We don’t mind the intrusion from the market because it is done in our own ‘individual interest.’ Customizing your Google and Facebook experiences to your intimate details and consumer choices is sold as tailoring the technology to your personal needs. Offering personal information to the company you are receiving a free service from helps them ‘improve’ while offering you the opportunity to make better consumer choices. However, as a friend said: when you are receiving something for free, then you are actually what’s for sale. Leaking war documents isn’t something that is done for the individual, it is done for the masses. Exposing war crimes is for the sake of millions – it’s hard to put a face on who benefits, which is why any face will do. In the Wikileaks case, it’s alleged that the intended benefactors were Al Qaeda operatives, resuscitating the bloated spectre of Bin Laden. Making information accessible for everyone means it is accessible to the enemy, which, using the perverted legal logic of the prosecution in the Bradley Manning case, means that it was intended for the enemy.

Flattered that we have become so important, we are offering up profiles of our behavior and desires to private interests, strengthening a system that has only offered alienation and mass impoverishment. The hacktivists who attempt to throw a wrench into this system using the same methods of gathering and distributing data –albeit for no profit – are immediately set upon by the best justice system money can buy. It is only when this exact behavior is streamlined into acceptable best-practices and wrapped up in page after page of  byzantine privacy agreements does it become something laudable, as opposed to treason.

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