Regardless of your background, socioeconomic status, or political spectrum, everything you do, everything you say, and everything you think is being subtly shaped by a “Deep State.” But the shadow organization I’m talking about isn’t a past or present administration. This isn’t the Alt-Right or Globalist Left. There’s no FBI or NSA faction trying to control your mind. No, the Deep State I’m referring to is the cabal of tech giants and data miners overtly and surreptitiously controlling what you see, whom you connect with, what you read, click, and care about.
Some, like Google, Facebook and Twitter are doing this out in the open. They believe the American public either doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or simply believes they don’t have a choice. Others, including Equifax and lesser known companies, shy away from the spotlight. Their offices may not be in Silicon Valley, but they’re minting profits from your information—whether you consent or not. They do this with the permission and support of our elected leaders (at least until they screw it up), through complex Terms of Service, and sheer will—not only assimilating our culture, but defining it.
The Deep State of Data is a convenient and comprehensive public-private partnership that exchanges information for access—access to services and utilities, access to other information, and even entire communities.
Meanwhile, your personal information generates endless amounts of digital gold for them. Take Facebook, for example. Every status update, like, and comment you’ve ever typed (even those you never published), every place you logged in from, every Messenger conversation and photograph, is paired with other “offline” data about you, then sold and exploited for any number of purposes. And that’s just one platform.
Your Facebook activity, Google searches, clicks, views, and retweets form the currency with which the Deep State of Data trades. They endlessly mine, store, and sell this data, supplementing it with information gathered by way of personal tracking devices (smartphones, smartwatches, and smart speakers) to collect and analyze your calls, messages, movements, habits, and influences, further fueling algorithms engineered to psychologically manipulate you.
Artificial intelligence is shaping what you think and how you think about it, telling you not only what to buy, but how often you need it, promoting specific agendas, feeding you fake news, and taking increasingly aggressive steps to garner even greater control.
This isn’t a near-future dystopian scenario. It’s happening right now. People in power are using massive amounts of data collection, obfuscated algorithms, and AI to control and manipulate the public in subtle and unpredictable ways, and no one is outside of their reach.
When the primary news source of 43 million people tailors its news feed based on past “click and like” behavior, and survives solely on advertising dollars, empirically neutral, nonpartisan, and even factually reliable media cease to exist. And yet the same outlets that serve us our news, interests, and other tailored, tunnel-vision-inducing hits of dopamine, do it under the guise of being “unbiased.” That’s doublethink at its finest.
We’re told that it’s ok that these companies monitor and maintain huge Stasi-like profiles on us. It’s ok because they’re doing it for our benefit, so they can better serve us advertising, expand our networks with like-minded people, and give us the best possible answer to our searches. Although some aren’t quite buying this: ad blocker use is at an all-time high, the share of non-Google search engines continues to increase, and Global VPN usage by consumers continues to grow.
Whether all at once, or through “death by a thousand cuts,” mainstream media and social media sites have betrayed the trust we once gave them. It’s over, and it’s not coming back.
In a recent Pew survey about misinformation online, experts are split on the outlook for the future. Some hold out hope that AI and machine learning will save us, while others rely on human nature as their guidepost to optimism. And yet, for now, the algorithms are written by the same humans who are both the authors and recipients of bias, and the problem of “trusted” sources isn’t going away.
“We can’t machine-learn our way out of this disaster, which is actually a perfect storm of poor civics knowledge and poor information literacy.“
— Mike Devito
The issue at hand is not one of bias, advertising, or even profiling, but control. Control over the how and the what, control over our personal information. It’s what many call “privacy” and though it’s quite easy to maintain in the real world (through intentional omission of information based on your social setting), protecting it in the digital world has become increasingly difficult—if not impossible.
Mark Zuckerberg says “Users control their data” and that users “can leave anytime they want” but that is completely disingenuous. Look at the work involved to actually leave Facebook. And more concerning is “leaving Google” isn’t even an option. These are simple, bold, lies. The Deep State doesn’t want, or in Google’s case, doesn’t let us out. Welcome to the Digital Hotel California.
I’m not here to be defeatist however. There is a way out. We can take back control of our lives, our inputs, our safety, and our data—it all starts with one simple act: Owning our identity.
Imagine giving a stranger on the train your address or phone number. Imagine walking around the city with your name and birthdate stamped across your forehead. It’s likely you wouldn’t do it, and for good reason. And yet you are forced to do this very thing every day online, with no knowledge of where that information ends up. Why? Because the internet went from “information should be free” to being “free of information” about what’s being done with the personal data we willingly give up. Our brains are so wired to the infinite scroll of content to feed our need for dopamine, that you either don’t know (though, newsflash, not a valid excuse anymore), don’t care, or more likely, don’t think you have a choice in the matter.
While many of us are able to control what people know about us offline, appropriately filtering that information according to our given social context or environment, wresting control in the digital world is amazingly difficult. We generally never know the full extent of what we’re sharing, with whom, how long that data will live (forever), or what it will ultimately be used for. We believe this is part of the tradeoff. Information for access. If we don’t like it, we’re told we can opt out—or move to an EU country. And yet, now more than ever, the online world pervades every aspect of our lives. Social networks are infamously sticky. Infinite scrolls and auto plays are engineered to produce the same physiological effects as drugs. Digital habits have become so difficult to break that a slew of rehabilitation centers now specialize in treating our addictions to them.
Enter: the four horsemen of the modern internet. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google—collectively known by the most appropriate acronym of our time— “FANG,” form the oligarchy of the Deep State of Data. If you’re not a believer, let’s run through the numbers. Facebook and Google control 70% of all advertising spend; Google accounts for almost 90% of search, Netflix can account for a third of ALL worldwide internet traffic, and Amazon…well, they’re just gobbling up retail one bankruptcy at a time. Is it any wonder that this digital cartel is simultaneously peddling their wares and permanently altering the mind, character, and destiny of their billions of users? The more time we spend “in app” or on platform, the more data is leeched out of us—traded, sold, stored forever. But our time and data aren’t all that’s at stake. Our identity doesn’t belong to us either.
Though it is appropriate, even advisable, for us to take pause and consider how algorithms, artificial intelligence and Big Data jeopardize individuality through a homogenization of culture, ideas, and beliefs, I want to focus, for now, on the other definition of identity. That is, an identifier, a means of ID. In this context, there are two categorizations of identification to call to mind, a legal identity and a personal identity.
A legal identity is a method by which an authority, usually a government, uses a set of attributes—a name, number, and date—to record and authenticate a human being’s existence within a given social context. In the United States, examples of this would be a birth certificate, a social security number, drivers license or passport, all of which authorize access to various privileges and services. The key concept is that a legal identity is created, managed, and maintained for us by someone else.
A personal identity is a persona we create, manage, and maintain for a specific context. In the offline world, this may be as a coach, as the neighborhood watch leader, or as the head of the Parent-Teacher Association. In the online world, this might include a digital identity—a username and password for online services and accounts, a gamer tag, or social media handle. Unlike legal identities, personal identities are created, managed and maintained by the individual, they can be temporary or long-lived, allow for segmentation and personalization, and are also used by digital companies to track, compile and mine user preferences and behaviors. The underlying concept is that a personal identity is created, managed, and maintained by us, for use in someone else’s environment.
In an age where the most powerful government in the world can’t protect the most sensitive information about its employees, where every single bank, brand, and credit bureau has, is, or will be compromised, and where the “oil” for the free internet is our data, both kinds of identities are at stake.
The internet is inherently unsafe and getting worse each year. Whether it’s the daily impact of data breaches at our trusted brands or the ever-increasing incidents of tracking, hacking, and cyber-stalking that afflict persons of all ages and demographics, the problem is well-known by users, well-covered by the press, and a source of continual hand-wringing for experts and politicians alike.
And yet, I would submit that the solution is remarkably simple. It doesn’t involve grandiose legislation from impotent politicians or “feel good” empty rhetoric like “Do Not Track” or “Your Privacy is Very Important to Us.” Rather, the answer is to simply match the experience of the offline world, over thousands of years in the making, to our online world. Reorient the internet to give users, instead of institutions, control of their information— that is, make their identity theirs. Let people choose how, when, and what they share with whom. Let them decide whether it’s a permanent relationship or a temporary one. Let them assess the worthiness of the counter-party, whether a person or organization. And perhaps most importantly, let them leave that relationship without a permanent trail following them around, to be traded without their knowledge, haunting future choices with histories, earned or learned.
In some ways, you’re doing this already. Everyone has more than one email account. You may be segregating your offline and online purchases with different credit cards. Some of you might even have multiple Instagram and Twitter profiles to manage different moods, personas, and audiences. All of us have membership in groups of our choosing, which we can leave at any time. Regardless of whether this segmentation is driven by a need for privacy, for control, or simply a need for organization, we do it because we want to. We choose to. And that’s what this is about, choice.
Over the past few years, months, weeks, and especially days, there has been a lot of finger-pointing and handwringing. We’ve witnessed nonstop breaches and exploits exposing the personally identifiable information —we’re talking credit card accounts, social security numbers, fingerprint records—of hundreds of millions of Americans. We look to legislators to create even more impotent legislation. We look to companies to take responsibility, but one question remains. Even if tech giants have the legislated mandate to do so, do they have the actual capability to protect people’s data?
The answer is no, they do not and never will.
So, no, we don’t need hollow promises from faceless organizations that “care about privacy.” And we especially don’t need to be told to “opt out.” In truth, we really need to opt in, to take control of our identity, before it’s too late.