The Techno-Industrial Complex: Friend or Foe?

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by Chris Black

Every day, we spend large portions of our time using internet services, including Facebook, Google, Instagram, Netflix, Amazon, LinkedIn, GrubHub, and so on. We volunteer not just Tweets and Likes, but massive volumes of data about ourselves, who we are, what we value, our fears, goals, desires, and so on. This isn’t just in the selective information we publicly share using these services.

Modern browsers and apps can track nearly everything about your behavior: what you click, how fast you scroll, what you tap, where you move your mouse cursor, how long you pause on an image, and so on. This behavior is associated with your IP address, which in most cases is already public information. Websites and cookie banners offer rambling legalese to explain the information they collect about you, which I imagine most are not reading for every website they visit or service they use.

Algorithms are used every day to produce feeds of content that are tailored to you, based on your past behavior. Despite the “Accept Cookies” dialogue, it is a trivial task to store someone’s current IP address and, if so inclined, share that information (along with all associated historical data) with others, even if it was a criminal or pseudo-criminal act.

These algorithms perform better with each passing day they’re used across the internet: it’s not just that the technologies, methods, and science of parsing data are essentially an arms race; they perform better with more data, and we provide them with more data every day.

Machine Learning has progressed to the point that a computer can drive a car, construct coherent stories and plotlines in readable language, generate a photorealistic photograph of a person on demand (thispersondoesnotexist.com/), crush us at Chess, make recommendations for music based on what we’ve listened to recently, suggest products we should purchase, people we should follow, ideas we should pay attention to, advertisements we should see, and so on.

Are the owners and operators of these internet services we use every day obligated to follow the law? Yes, but so was Enron. And even with our laws, the Edward Snowden leaks showed that our own government — or parties therein — are willing to break the law in order to eavesdrop on us without our consent. Consider then the scenario of cloaked parties, both within multinational corporations and government, working together to conceal each other’s crimes, using and manipulating our data in ways we cannot imagine.

In fact, with such power at their control, the “techno-politico-industrial complex” can obey the written law to a letter, and still, by the means of producing the information “output” for which we provide the daily “input,” tailor an experience to us so personal and perhaps even subconscious that we are fully unaware of the ways we’re being manipulated.

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