Big Data: These Cookies definitely have fucking raisins in them

Domi Rybova reflects on the mass collection of personal data by big tech companies and the ramifications it has on our democracy and privacy.

If you judged me on my Goodreads to-read list, you’d probably be able to guess things like who I vote for, where I think the future is heading and whether or not I use a reusable water bottle (I’m on Goodreads, lol). Scrolling through my homepage I can see that my own ‘to-reads’ slot neatly into the politics friends’ virtual libraries: Book titles run onto one another as though composing a poem to an aspiring self; someone who reveres classics, envisions a socialist future, checks their privilege and checks it again.

All of these bits of information start to sketch an outline of the type of personality I am. Compiled with all my other taps and swipes, the image of my very being becomes further fleshed out. I see that image wink back at me in ads for ECONYL swimwear, refillable deodorant sticks, “kick-ass razors built by women” (eye-roll). It’s vaguely horrific to see how well the internet knows me, but I’m so used to it that I don’t really bat an eyelid. Is that a bad thing? I have a sticker over my laptop camera.

But truthfully I wouldn’t be writing this article if this all didn’t, on some more considered level, deeply terrify me. It’s been two years since Donald Trump and the Leave.EU campaign became exposed as the surprising bedfellows of Facebook. The matches had been made by the political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, who pulled information from Facebook user profiles to identify ‘persuadables’: Voters who were undecided, who might sway, and if spoken to directly might just tip the results of a campaign.

Assessed and logged, CA cherry-picked a perfectly refined audience for each of these political campaigns, whose Facebook ads were pumped with misinformation and lies. U.S. voters in swing states were fed a ‘crooked Hillary,’ whilst South Walians were threatened by xenophobic fabrication. These campaigns pulled off a capital crime, and continued to happen all over the world – CA was on a roll. With damning victory, democracy in the social media age was demonstrated as impossible.

The whistle blew and CA declared bankruptcy. Mark Zuckerberg had to answer uncomfortable questions about privacy and promised that this would never happen again – as though he had missed the mass infiltration of political agendas on his website. The dark side of data had been exposed on the flipside of democracy.

And yet it seemed that just as quickly as the whistle blew, so did our bubbles blow up again. Cookies were accepted, the fine print skimmed over. I certainly scrolled on. After all, I would never vote for anyone who would manipulate people and churn out lies for political victory. What good could I be to a right-wing Tommy Robinson-type ad? Maybe I do buy things I have subliminally come to desire through ads, but that must be the extent of it.

But the truth is, even my political antithesis could gain from knowing not to target me – why waste money? More importantly, this is so much greater than my own reassurance. To delude myself into thinking that as long as I know, then I am free, would be to negate the very architecture of democracy. As long as anyone can be subject to targeted advertisement which can have real, political consequences, none of us can hope to participate in democratic voting.

Many of the same workers who worked for CA now work for Emerdata – who could provide the same privacy-splintering services. Capital flows through data like never before so much so that many have argued it is the new oil. Dark and lucrative, data has been weaponized as a tool for surveillance – and messilly too, as reports of data leaks seem to be constantly spilling. The EU’s ambitious data protection laws pushed through in 2018 are failing to be enforced given the shortage of tech experts who can deal with them. We still have no idea who owns our data, where it is stored, nor with whom it is shared. Tick-boxing the use of tracking cookies on a website is merely a means of legally making the user compliant in having their activity tracked, flimsily presented under the guise of company transparency. In short, the onus is on us.

So, back to Goodreads. Goodreads, so wholesomely packaged in shades of wholewheat beige, is owned by the omnipresent and increasingly omniscient superstore: Amazon. Much like its fellow tech-bro-giants, Amazon has always exploited clicky-happy consumer culture to predict and manipulate its buyers’ desires. In exchange for the slick, tech-y ease of Amazon’s products and services such as Kindle or Alexa, the customer surrenders their intimacy. Whether it’s a moving passage you highlighted in a novel or Alexa collecting (and even regurgitating – to another Alexa user) your private conversations – Amazon is tracking it. Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s an Amazon worker drawing up a picture of me based on the books I’m reading on Goodreads and it’s easier to imagine them disappearing into some digitised cosmos. But to never consider or reflect upon that possibility would be a waste of an article.

Written and illustrated by Domi Rybova.

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