Our editor Sam Stevenson points you in the direction of a few works guaranteed to make you ponder. Read about the recent data harvesting scandal, what it means for everyday citizens of both Europe and the world and how to delete your data.
It is almost 70 years since George Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four was first published. In 2018, as Europe faces the threat of all-out war with Russia and Syria, the fictitious world it crafts seems not so far removed from reality. Still, today’s wars are no longer waged on the battlefield. Modern wars, like modern times, are multifaceted and devilishly complex.
Contrary to Orwell’s world of perpetual war, conjured by the 1943 Tehran conference, the prospect of conflict facing us is uniquely modern and technology-driven. Cyber warfare, where data replaces detonations and algorithms replace arsenals, now plays its part in the political posturing of the capricious world stage.
The warfare we face may differ from the one Orwell created in the 1940s. But the omnipresent government surveillance he imparted, hellish as it seems, could almost be drawn from the world in which we now reside.
Amid the recent data-harvesting furore, which embroiled social network monopoliser Facebook with data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica, Orwell’s prescient maxim—‘Big Brother is watching you’—seems more significant than ever.
Forget the Gestapo, the Soviet Union or the Spanish Inquisition. Facebook and Google hold more data on us than even the most brazen surveillance states in history. In these uneasy conditions, it is more important than ever to consider the impact mass-scale data collection has for everyday citizens of Europe and the world.
I want to reflect on the recent data-harvesting scandal, which involved 87 million peoples’ personal information. If you’re out of the loop, check this New York Times article out to catch up on all you need to know. It covers everything from the initial expose to the consequent fall out and includes a section on Brexit, which is especially relevant.
While researching the topic, I also came across this incisive Guardian think-piece by Dylan Curran, which exposes just how much data both Google and Facebook store on us. In the article, Curran makes use the tech giants’ option to download all the information they store on their users.
The results make for thought-provoking reading.
Curran revealed the data Google alone stored on him was enough to ‘fill millions of Word documents.’ Among other things, he highlighted it didn’t matter if you’d deleted your search or phone history on one device, Google may have stored your data from other devices too.
He also stressed Facebook had access to your laptop’s webcam, microphone and camera, via its app. And not only does Google store your location every time you switch on your phone, but it’s been tracking where you’ve been from the very first day you started using Google Maps.
The question is: are we surprised by this?
After all, these companies are there to make money. And their fundamental business model, which revolves around advertising, requires retention of vast amounts of customer data. Most of us are probably aware when we use a free service like Facebook—or benefit from the wealth of knowledge free search engines provide—there must be a catch somewhere.
But that doesn’t mean European millennials aren’t shocked to discover so much of their personal information is ‘out there’, to be sold off to the highest bidder. If you, like countless others, are concerned, I recommend reading this WIRED article by Matt Burgess, which explains how to delete your personal data.
The crux of the issue lays in whether we are aware the extent to which our data is being harvested, and whether we give meaningful consent for its use.
To understand this, we must make the critical distinction—brought to light by whistle blower Chris Wylie—between the information we willingly share, and the information Facebook and Google take without our knowledge or explicit consent. Put another way, are users of Facebook and Google aware of the stakes involved when signing up to use these services?
For better or worse, we’re beginning to find out.
Add to that allegations the data Cambridge Analytica harvested may have played a role in influencing the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum, and things start to look serious.
Orwell’s was a world of dystopian proportions—perhaps ours is not so different.