This past June, I attended the Stanford Commencement Ceremony where Tim Cook was the keynote speaker. To the surprise of most in attendance, Cook devoted a large portion of his commencement speech to talking about data security. At the time, I didn’t fully realize the seriousness of what he was talking about. However, I now realize just how dangerous data can be when in the wrong hands. The most glaring example of this is the 2018 Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. By harvesting data taken from Facebook, Cambridge Analytica managed to identify swing voters in the 2016 US election and send them targeted messages intended to get them to vote for Donald Trump. It’s possible that Cambridge Analytica’s powerful manipulation of swing voters altered the overall outcome of the election. The Netflix film, The Great Hack, makes the point that this scandal has made Facebook a “handmaid to authoritarianism,” which seems accurate when considering that it was used to effectively control a population.
The scandal illustrates just how powerful those with data can be. Data allows those who possess it to communicate with us on a deep, personalized level and there’s no telling just how much those who possess our data can manipulate us. While I’d like to think that no algorithm could change my beliefs or behaviors, that may be naive. With enough data points, someone could probably figure out exactly what makes me click.
Because of all this, Tim Cook’s deep commitment to data security is somewhat reassuring. Apple probably has as much if not more data on its users than Google, Facebook, or Amazon. If they wanted to, they could make billions selling our data to anyone who seeks to send us a personalized political message, effectively convince us to buy a product, or manipulate us in ways I can’t even fathom. The stand Cook and Apple are taking against reckless dissemination of data will hopefully set a precedent in the tech industry for data rights.
Taking all of this information about the power of data into consideration opens up some big questions. Are data rights truly a human right? Companies like Facebook are only able to provide us the services that they provide us for free becausethey sell our data, most of which we provided them willingly. Because these companies are partial owners of our data, I think it’s important that 1) we are made fully aware of our personal data being tracked and 2) tech companies are good stewards of our data and only provide it to companies with high ethical standards. However, both of these are easier said than done. Another question is whether we should be using Cambridge Analytica’s techniques to send positive messages. For example, if someone’s data indicates that they are considering carrying out a mass shooting, should we send them personalized ads saying not to? That’s probably a slippery slope; however, these are important considerations as we enter an era in which personal data exists in droves.
The Data Ledger
At least at this point, it seems impractical to say the tech companies (that are at the very least partial owners of the data that we give them) have no right to sell our data. I think the main issue isn’t the fact that they’re selling our data but the fact that we have no idea what our data is being used for. I think a relatively straight-forward and effective first step in the development of human data rights would be to mandate that companies selling our data create ledgers of all transactions involving our data. We should have the right to request viewing our ledger and the companies should grant us access to this ledger in a timely manner. This would ensure that if Facebook is selling our data to a Cambridge Analytica-type company that seeks to accomplish a certain objective with it, we are at least aware of the fact that they are doing so. If we see they are doing something sketchy with our data, we can file a formal complaint. Right now, I don’t believe anything of the sort exists. In fact, when David Caroll requested his data from Cambridge Analytica, they denied his request. This illustrates that one of the largest current issues regarding data rights is the lack of transparency. Transparency with regards to what is done with our data would be a great first step in giving humanity the data rights that it deserves.