4 min read
Yesterday, December 14th, was an interesting day in technology. Evernote announced an update to their terms of service that appears to allow selected employees to read notes stored in their system, with no opt-out, in the interest of improving machine learning. People using Evernote are - rightly - talking about abandoning the service en-masse, which seems like a pretty reasonable response to such horrible privacy practice. Of course, I have heard nary a peep from Evernote's education ambassadors about this. Who knows - maybe if they actually said something they might have to give back their t-shirts and stickers.
But Evernote's issues were a footnote compared to the spectacle of major tech leaders shuffling into Trump Tower to meet with the president-elect, the incoming vice-president, and the children of the president-elect. If we are searching for a situation that illustrates how ethics get bent for reasons of politics and profit, we don't need to look much further than this event.
An additional backdrop here is that Trump ascended to the presidency with the help of the company that he didn't invite because they refused his emoji. And, during a campaign that was marked by promises of creating a registry for Muslims, the Trump campaign was steadily creating a version of that registry, and more, with data pulled from Facebook, assembled and augmented by Cambridge Analytica, and further extended by data purchased from the major data brokers here in the US that combines in-person and online habits, with up to 5000 individual data points on 220 million Americans. This data set is privately held, so potentially, White House advisors like Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon could be using this data set to inform their work. But let's be clear - this data set exists because of the work of the tech industry, and the data it collects.
Third party tracking is pervasive on the web. This technology creates marked and growing information asymmetry, where the odds are increasingly stacked against people, and stacked for corporations. Technology fuels this power imbalance, and technologists build the tools that make it possible.
The day before the leading technologists in our country shuffled into Trump Tower, news broke of 200 million records for sale on the dark web containing information that appears to come from a data broker. The records identify individuals, and include details like spending habits, political contributions, political leaning, credit rating, charitable contributions, travel habits, and information on gambling habits/tendencies. These records were certainly assembled and stored via different tracking technologies.
With this as a backdrop, when I see something like neveragain.tech I will admit a degree of skepticism. The profiling tools are built, and the data sets are assembled, multiple times over. I also want to make explicitly clear that my signature, or lack of signature, on the list is pretty unimportant in the larger scheme of things. But with all that said - and with all the technology that has been built, and is right now humming along, collecting data, serving bad search results, and tracking us - we can still make things better. Hell, we might even be able to make things right.
With regard to privacy, people often use two metaphors to describe why the efforts to increase privacy protections are meaningless: "the genie is out of the bottle" and "the train has left the station." What people using these metaphors fail to recognize is that the stories end with the genie returning to the bottle, and the train pulling into another station. "Too late" is the language of the lazy or the overwhelmed. Change starts with awareness, and change grows with organized voices. That's something I can get behind, and is the reason I signed neveragain.tech.