Data harvesting: the problem
The original World Wide Web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee at the particle physics centre CERN near Geneva in 1999, was a “decentralised” affair. There were no central servers; websites ran on individual machines in universities, offices and bedrooms. Hosting a site just meant plugging a computer into your internet connection and having it serve up the HTML code to anyone visiting. No one company ruled the roost, but getting involved was too difficult for most people.
Despite its seemingly infinite nature, the web is now largely centred on just a handful of companies. Instead of a proliferation of independently run sites, the web is dominated by global firms with whom we have made a Faustian pact. In exchange for convenience, we let companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon – and, more recently, start-ups like Uber and Airbnb – conduct their business by siphoning up and profiting from information that is used to target advertising and sell stuff back to us. The data also forms the building blocks for a new generation of artificial intelligence that will determine the future of the web. We, the ones producing this valuable data, have lost control of it, and need to get it back and break the monopolies of the server farms and the people who own them, and get back to the way the web was always intended,
Objections? Firstly, we don’t really know what information is being collected and used without permission. It is easy to spy on people if you know how to do it, and our work is easily hacked by thieves. And yet we have no choice but use the internet and the uncertainty makes many people nervous.
Secondly, the small number of companies are making huge fortunes out of our information, and we are paid not a penny for it (now even the car manufacturers are doing the same thing). The data is collected not just on computers and i-pads but on smart devices in our homes – and cars! Artificial intelligences being created by internet companies will make us ever more dependent on their services. Coupled with this is the rise of decision-making software, which firms are increasingly using to help make calls about loans, job applications and health insurance based on your data. In effect our personal data is being used to train artificial intelligence operated machines how to manipulate us. (A heavily edited version of an article by Hal Hodson, New Scientist)
Tomorrow: about the people who are trying to fight back against mass data collection and its mis-use.