The End of Privacy:Big Data and Artificial Intelligence

The world is undergoing another technological upheaval that has significant implications for society. One of these key factors leading this change is big data and artificial intelligence. With social media and internet usage at an all-time high and continuing to grow, there is a massive data explosion. Researchers say that the amount of data we produce doubles annually.

Big Data refers to enormous data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions.

Every time, we post something online shows information. Every time we search something on Google or Facebook represents a data search. Things are getting more connected to the internet and our devices, e.g. Smartwatches, Google Lens, Virtual reality. Everything is getting smart. Machine learning, as a field, is growing rapidly.

Data by itself is neutral. It is what we do with data that matters. If we harness data well, it can help mankind and society. If greed sets in, data can be leveraged for selfish ambitions.

All of these data points controlled by corporations can be leveraged for significant exploitation and profits. Our data is no longer private as we cannot live without our devices and the Internet. If artificial intelligence continues to learn and become better, what will happen to humans? Aside from the fact that automation and machines are taking over and even eliminating jobs and even Mark Zuckerberg has given his support for basic income, what does the future hold of mankind under this technological upheaval?

In China, there is this initiative towards a “Citizen Score,” which will determine the parameters of their loans, jobs and even travel visa to other countries. Will developed nations follow suit and use data to monitor and profile their citizens?

Will algorithms rule our lives eventually and make decisions for us?

Trump Presidency

Data is now being leveraged in political arenas to influence public opinion, and because data is now driven by software, it can collect massive amounts of data quickly, and computers can analyze and profile these data to specifications needed by politicians.

One of the biggest financiers for Donald Trump’s Presidency was Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund billionaire. He was recently unmasked to be one of the owners of the data mining and analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA) which uses data mining and advanced technology to create accurate psychometric voter profiles so that political ads and messages can target their emotional triggers and swing votes to the intended politician. These methods are referred to “psychographic.” Another person close to Trump, Steve Bannon who is Trump’s Chief Strategist and a member of the White House Security Council, is a board member of CA. The links to the Republican party is very strong in the CA organization.

According to CA’s website, it gathered up to 5,000 data points from more than 220 million Americans, and it used more than 100 data variables to model audience groups that will allow them to predict their behavior.

CA asserts that by using the massive data CA collects, CA can aggregate the data and create Big Five personality profile of every single adult in America. The Big Five Personality measures Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

This allows Trump’s campaign team to personalize the marketing on the messages that Trump was putting out during the campaign. Through this personality profiling, CA can group people together that have the same needs and aspires for the same things even though they might be physically different to each other.

According to Alexander Nix, CEO of CA, in an interview with Bloomberg, “Your behavior is driven by your personality and the more you can understand about people’s personality as psychological drivers, the more you can start to tap in why and how they make their choices. We call this behavioral microtargeting, and this is our secret sauce if you like. This is what we are bringing to America.”

CA’s analysis was so precise that it created recommendations for Trump’s campaign team as to where to have their rallies, where TV ads should be placed as well as identify locations where potential donors live and where volunteers should maximize their door to door campaign visits.

Donald Trump’s team reportedly paid more than $6m to get the winning edge by targeting the swing voters in the hotly contested race against Hillary Clinton.

According to Martin Moore, director of Kings College’s Centre for the Study of Media, Communication, and Power, “The Trump campaign were using 40-50,000 different variants of an ad every day that was continuously measuring responses and then adapting and evolving based on that response. It is all done completely opaquely, and they can spend as much money as they like on particular locations because you can focus on a five-mile radius.”

CA was formed in 2013 as a spinoff of its British parent company SCL Group. CA first assisted in Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign but switched to Trump after Cruz backed out of his campaign.

SCL Group is notorious for its involvement in politics wherein the military and politicians harness its services to study and manipulate public opinion and political will. SCL Group has analyzed Pakistani jihadists while working with the British government while it provided intelligence

It influences behavior by pinpointing key audiences and coming up with strategies to connect with them.

Nigel Oakes is the founder of SCL and in 1999 won a deal with to boost the reputation of then Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid.

Big Data and Brexit

CA is also allegedly involved in influencing the Britons to vote to exit the European Union. Using data gathered from people’s Facebook, and their social media profiles, CA tapped machine learning and artificial intelligence to create highly personalized and targeted advertisements that will influence them to lean towards exiting the EU.

Communications director for Leave.UK, Andy Wigmore, admitted that it used Facebook profiling technology to target voters on Facebook with anti-EU messaging. Wigmore, in an interview with The Observer, said, “Using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about the individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. Moreover, you knew there would also be other people in their network who like what they liked so you could spread. Moreover, then you follow them. The computer never stops learning, and it never stops monitoring.”

Wigmore also revealed that CA worked with the Leave.UK group on a pro bono basis because the Farage led group is a good friend of Robert Mercer, who is a big investor in CA.

It was a successful campaign. founder Arron Banks, in an interview with The Observer, said, “Al won it for leave.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), UK’s privacy watchdog, is investigating CA as to whether voter’s data were exploited in the Brexit political campaign and how voter’s data were captured. Findings from this inquiry are expected to be released later in the year.

Martin Moore of King’s College London, a leading expert on the impact of technology on elections described this revelation that CA helped influence the Brexit vote as “extremely disturbing and quite sinister.” He said, “undisclosed support-in-kind is extremely troubling. It undermines the whole basis of our electoral system that we should have a level playing field.”

In the U.S., companies can use third-party data without asking for consent. However, European Union laws only allow collection of personal data of individuals if the individual has unambiguously given his or her consent after being informed.

With CA’s success with Trump’s campaign and Brexit, it has now been courted by many politicians and organizations seeking to influence decisions. Kenya’s political party, Jubilee, has tapped the services of CA for its August presidential election.

Final Thoughts

Big Data and artificial intelligence can be harnessed for good, e.g. sustainable cities and personalized healthcare.

However, the danger with big data is that anybody with enough data about you, i.e. social media companies, they can learn very intimate details about you even though you do not disclose or talk about it. What’s even worse is that they can leverage messages and campaigns targeting you to fit their purposes which in a way are a form of psychological manipulation.

On a bigger scale, these data mining and analytics firms can manipulate game-changing events like elections and other propaganda campaigns. These data can also be used to make decisions on credit access and even employment.

We must be aware of these possibilities and ensure that they engage in critical thinking before making decisions as well as be wary of too much social media consumption and ad exposure as over extended time, it can wire our brains differently.

Finally, we must be careful with personal data, how it collected and how it might potentially be used for harmful activities. The government has to step in to address these risks which can lead to loss of freedom and self-determination. If the government does not step in, it will be a difficult combination to defeat: Corporations and Al.