Data, Oil and Analogies

As oil was to the 19th century so data is to the 21st.   Why?   And what could it mean for our privacy?

In the 19th and 20th centuries, oil and coal drove industrialisation.   Britain’s last coal fired power station is set to close by 2025.   Yet we only had our first ever coal-free day just a few weeks ago – on Friday 20th April 2017 to be precise, a very warm and sunny day in the Southern Britain.   Are we living out the dying days of coal fired power stations? Hope so.

The providers of coal and oil in the 19th and 20th centuries grew rich and powerful.   The Gulbenkian foundation was founded as a way to channel the personal wealth of the Armenian oil tycoon Calouste Gulbenkian.   In his time, Gulbenkian’s wealth gave him enormous power to shape events and politics across continents in the 19th and early 20th centuries.   Getty likewise following WW2   There have been many others too.

Today, the leading power brokers are tech companies and their founders, people like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Elon Musk (Paypal, Tesla, Neuralink and others), Jeff Bezos (Amazon, Basecamp, AirBnB, Google), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google, Tesla).

And what do these new lions of the corporate world order have in masses?   Data.   Data which has been mined through each and every one of our online activities.

Our consumption of news, our shopping, the way we research information, the social media imprint we leave behind, the networks of connections we have … all are driven by technology.   The free gifts it gives us are not really free.

There is an exchange every time you use technology, whether you’re aware of it or not.   From online shopping to Amazon’s next day delivery; from Facebook’s free newsfeed to Google’s free search engine … all delivered via smartphones, tablets or laptops, each a finely tuned data gathering and transmission device.   It’s in the way we use technology, that so much of our data is gathered.

In simple terms, each search you carry out, each comment you make on Facebook or every shopping decision you make online is logged.

Algorithms (artificial intelligence) look at this data and build up a picyture of who you are, what your state of mind may be, what ‘floats your boat’ as it were.

The information is used to target advertising, news or information at you and people like you.   And if it needs to, it can be about you, just you.   That granular degree of personalisation as the trade calls it – a nice, friendly sounding term – is perfectly possible.   It’s also, frankly, a bit spooky.

The Internet of Things, a reality today, is multiplying the data gathered about every aspect of our lives and building up an even more nuanced picture of our daily lives.

I don’t have answers as to what we need to do.   Like you, I have my own ideas.   They may be informed by my exposure to many years’ experience of working in digital marketing and with digital media, but they will utlimately be informed by the knowledge I can access.   All of which will be logged, of course.

What we need, now more than ever, is supranational legisltation and policing of the way our data is handled, who by and for what purpose.   As the UK ponders leaving the EU following the Brexit referendum, it’s worth remembering that some of the companies referred to above have a market worth and reach which is a real challenge to our economy, and legislators.  This gives them disproportionate access to discrete levers of power.   After all, money talks.   We’d be wise to heed the warnings of history provided by the US antitrust laws of the 19th century which grew out an increasing unease at the overweening power and wealth of an elite few, enabling them to have potential control of the entire economy of the USA.

The GDPR is a piece of EU legislation currently due to come into force in May 2018. It’s a kind of super sizing of the UK’s existing data protection laws, and poses a direct challenge at supranational level to the behemoths of technology and media. We’d be wise not to throw out the safeguards it gives us in the interests of a spurious ‘freedom’ from the EU in the wake of BREXIT.

Regulating the Internet Giants (The Economist)