Big Tech Merging With Big Brother? Social Media Mobs Raise New Privacy Concerns

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A FRIEND OF mine, who runs a large television production company in the car-mad city of Los Angeles, recently noticed that his intern, an aspiring filmmaker from the People’s Republic of China, was walking to work.

WHEN HE OFFERED to arrange a swifter mode of transportation, she declined. When he asked why, she explained that she “needed the steps” on her Fitbit to sign in to her social media accounts. If she fell below the right number of steps, it would lower her health and fitness rating, which is part of her social rating, which is monitored by the government. A low social rating could prevent her from working or traveling abroad.

China’s social rating system, which was announced by the ruling Communist Party in 2014, will soon be a fact of life for many more Chinese.

By 2020, if the Party’s plan holds, every footstep, keystroke, like, dislike, social media contact, and posting tracked by the state will affect one’s social rating.

Personal “creditworthiness” or “trustworthiness” points will be used to reward and punish individuals and companies by granting or denying them access to public services like health care, travel, and employment, according to a plan released last year by the municipal government of Beijing. High-scoring individuals will find themselves in a “green channel,” where they can more easily access social opportunities, while those who take actions that are disapproved of by the state will be “unable to move a step.”

Big Brother is an emerging reality in China. Yet in the West, at least, the threat of government surveillance systems being integrated with the existing corporate surveillance capacities of big-data companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon into one gigantic all-seeing eye appears to trouble very few people—even as countries like Venezuela have been quick to copy the Chinese model.

Still, it can’t happen here, right? We are iPhone owners and Amazon Prime members, not vassals of a one-party state. We are canny consumers who know that Facebook is tracking our interactions and Google is selling us stuff.

Yet it seems to me there is little reason to imagine that the people who run large technology companies have any vested interest in allowing pre-digital folkways to interfere with their 21st-century engineering and business models, any more than 19th-century robber barons showed any particular regard for laws or people that got in the way of their railroads and steel trusts.

Nor is there much reason to imagine that the technologists who run our giant consumer-data monopolies have any better idea of the future they’re building than the rest of us do.


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Social media mobs raise new privacy concerns…

You might own your car, your house, your pet and your 401(k). But you don’t own your own photographic image.

That’s one of the lessons of Rashomon on the Potomac, the bizarre fracas that occurred over the weekend on the National Mall involving Omaha elder Nathan Phillips, the Black Hebrew Israelites and a group of boys from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky.

The matter shot to national attention after a short video was posted on Twitter depicting (part of) the incident. The focal point of the video was the image of a drumming Mr. Phillips standing up close to one of the students, who was donning a “Make America Great Again” cap.

The boy, it was widely said, was “smirking” throughout the encounter. That smirk was blasted across the globe. Eminences such as Reza Aslan, a creative writing professor who plays a religious historian on television, deemed the boy’s face “punchable” to his nearly 300,000 Twitter followers.


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ZUCKERBERG: Need your data for ‘operation, security’…


We need your information for operation and security, but you control whether we use it for advertising.


Private satellites uncharted territory in data collection…

David Martin reports on a new, uncharted frontier in the collection of data created by hundreds of privately produced satellites whose millions of images are available to the public and not just the government. His story will be broadcast on 60 Minutes on Sunday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

Planet Labs, the satellite company, has launched hundreds of small satellites for commercial use, such as monitoring the health of crops. They get over a million photos from them each day.  “I’m always astonished that almost every picture we get down, we compare it to the picture from yesterday and something has changed,” says one of the company’s founders, Will Marshall.

Planet Lab has 200 customers, none more important than the U.S. Government. Martin was given rare access to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s operations center, where data from U.S. government satellites and Planet Lab is secretly analyzed.


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