Monday, October 30, 2017

Why I like intelligent machines spying on me

Last week on Reddit people repeatedly freaked out about artificial intelligence machines (Facebook, Google, Amazon) spying on us, humans. Listening to keywords we utter through phone apps that run in the background; inferring who our friends are based on WiFi networks we connect to, and so on.

And I have to admit that in principle I actually like the idea of advertisers spying on me. For two very different reasons.

One, I am a big fan of targeted advertisement. The day when Instagram finally figured that I'm not buying a new luxury car, but instead started advertising books, I celebrated. I actually tried to pat the AI on the back, to trick it into showing even more books-related ads (I'm not sure it worked, but I kept promoted posts on the screen for a bit longer, as I think it tracks it, and then also clicked on some every now and then). Because I'd really much rather stare at book covers or fancy musical instruments than at cars and fashion items. I'll never buy either, but hey books are so much more enjoyable! And as long as ads are unavoidable, at least let's pick the ones we care about.

Second, I think the privacy is dead, but the society is in denial and does not realize that. It's a huge topic, and I have 5-6 draft posts saved that I never have time to finish, but basically the concept of privacy as we knew it is gone quite some time ago. We shed parts of our identity all the time, and it only takes some time and effort to figure out everything. Have you heard of this artist who collected hairs on the floor of Grand Central station in NYC, ran DNA tests on them, and then reconstructed faces of their owners? It was more of an art project, because we are not yet that good in facial reconstruction from DNA, but in principle it's quite doable. In 2-3 years if not now. Or have you heard about how it's possible to ID the driver based on how they turn, accelerate and break? The information that is recorded by any GPS device with a built-in accelerometer (aka smartphone). Privacy does not exist, yet there are no social or legal protections for the new world in which privacy does not exist. The sooner we realize it, the better. And in a crooked way, Facebook spying on people may accelerate changes in the society that would protect individuals from impacts of sudden exposure.

Again, that's a huge topic, but if you think of it, the main risk of living in post-privacy world is that some forces (your government, police, health insurance company) can access your life much easier than you can access theirs, and has much more to gain. It's the asymmetry of power that is dangerous, not the absence of privacy itself. Once we realize that everything that is hidden will be revealed, we have at least some chance of making sure it won't destroy us. It's like with Equifax breach: the breach is not the problem (some leak was bound to happen sooner or later), the problem is that our whole lives can be ruined by a single stupid number. Don't shoot the messenger, you know? And I think in this case Facebook and Google are, in a way, the messengers.