A key question this series has sought to discuss is the extent to which we as citizens have lost the ability to dictate and influence the policies and ideas which our society and governments implement.
Technological development has always been a necessary and important part of human history, and in the last 30 years has delivered a multitude of services, products and platforms which have had a substantial and largely positive impact on our lives.
However, the other question which the series tackles, is to what extent is the trust we place in companies and services, that have become so integral to our lives, justifiable and right?
Edward Snowden stated that is not only governments, intelligence agencies and foreign adversaries which have the ability to access data and information about you, but also the very companies and services you subscribe to.
Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Google are just some which have become dominant parts of out lives. They are the influencers and developers of the most important and popular platforms and services, possessing the ability to oversee and analyse all users on their platforms.
We as users must acknowledge the power these companies have. These companies, while having an undoubtedly positive influence on our lives, legally, they are able to gather data on everything about us from where we travel, who we communicate with and even what we eat. In the same way that metadata was used and abused by western intelligence agencies, private companies have the same ability to build a picture of who you are and even how you think.
Whilst it may not be the aim of these companies to do us harm or infringe on our rights, as users in the digital age, we must acknowledge that these companies must equally be held accountable and transparent when it comes to our online activities.
Here are a few reasons why we must take that step back:
- Philosophy of Technology Companies.
From the telephone to the steam engine, technological advancement has proven to better the lives of people across the world. The creators of the telephone would have been astounded to believe that there would be a world where people would have access to “instant global public messaging for free”, the likes that Twitter and Snapchat offer.
However, it is become a cause for concern that some of the leaders of these companies have taken on the view that with the current development in online and software based services, things like privacy, which we hold dear, do not hold a significant place in society.
In 2010, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerburg, suggested that people are now more willing to share information about themselves online, and therefore privacy is no longer a “social norm”. While as humans, we desire social connection, the problem with this statement is that it implies there is a choice. A choice available to people to decide what information is public and those they keep private.
Eric Schmidt, the long time executive at Google has dismissed the importance of privacy saying that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
Whilst the recent efforts by Apple to protect the rights of their users and customers is welcomed, it is these philosophies which are worrying, because it showcases a broader societal acceptance that in the digital world, certain liberties we take for granted in the physical world, will decline in importance.
“Social Network” is a phrase thrown around in the tech world. Whilst Hollywood and much of the world would limit its categorisation to include companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, in reality its scope is much broader.
Everything we do in life stems from one of the core aspects of human nature, our yearning for social connection.
Companies from all areas of the globe, in all industries imaginable are starting to realise that technological development automatically involves gearing their products and services towards the “social network”
If we take two of the biggest and most profitable companies in the tech world currently, Facebook and Uber. Whilst we all consider Facebook to be the epitome of a social network, they are continually generating products which utilise their social base to influence other areas.
Facebook only recently surpassed 1 billion users, taking up over 60% of all social logins. This market dominance has extended in other domains like powering social logins on e-commerce sites, education and non-profits. In addition, if you take some of the most used communication and social apps services out there, Facebook has a huge stake in them, including WhatsApp and Instagram. Their desire to dominate social communication in the digital space is not a secret, having previously tried to acquire communication giants Twitter and Facebook, but it shows that a company like Facebook has an increasingly dominant influence over the way we communicate.
At the same time, Uber, whilst focusing on the urban transportation industry, they too have hedged bets on utilising a social network to help drive their business. Uber are currently testing their car pooling services around the world, in addition to deliveries. Uber’s increasing ability to monitor our movements was drawn in the public consciousness last year when it was revealed that the company had developed a “God mode” where they could see all drivers and by extension all users whilst in transition and stationary.
- Data, Data, Data
Many companies have placed big bets on big data, and the ability to both store and provide services, platforms to analyse and provide feedback for all companies and individuals.
“Big Data” is word which, for many, was thrown around without realising its potential. Whilst it was portrayed as a way for companies to develop and improve their products, the revelations of Edward Snowden, forced society and the tech world to step back and look at the potential negative impact of data gathering.
When we sign up to these services and platforms, we have entered into contract with them placing a trust and faith in them to protect and stand for our interests.
Take a company like Foursquare, the local search and discovery service mobile app. Whilst the company has experience a certain amount of turbulence in last few years, with 50mn global monthly users, through its popular search tool and GPS technology, it has been able to acquire massive amounts of data on how, when, where and with who people socially interact with and even how they feel at that time whilst on the platform.
Whilst this seems harmless, companies suggesting that any data collected is utilised to better their services and products, having this amount of data accumulated, stored and analysed, essentially without our explicit permission, is a scary thought. Whilst social convention dictates a trust in these companies, it is important to acknowledge that these private companies have access to our lives ad our online personalities, and therefore their uses of this information must be made transparent.
The current Apple court battle with the FBI, urging the American judicial system to protect the rights of the user, is a positive sign that global corporations are willing to stand up for the rights of the user. However, considering that governments in the western world aren’t going to enforce a legal mechanism for protecting our digital rights anytime soon, users individually inform themselves of what it means to place trust in these companies.
- Enterprise Technology
It was announced in late January 2016 that Facebook would being opening a new data centre in Ireland name EU2, the second one built by Zuckerburg. This is an important development for not only businesses and enterprises but for the daily user. It reflects the company’s, as well as the larger tech industry’s, rising user base and therefore need to build more infrastructure to handle all those photos, videos and “likes”. Whilst this is primarily a foray into large scale computing for Facebook, treading on the toes of Cisco and Arista, it is another sign Facebook as well as other social companies amassing huge traffic, data and influence.
Facebook’s development in multiple areas including instant communication, including purchases of WhatsApp and Oculus, showcases the potential power and influence the company is going to have beyond the social borders. An expansion into a $140bn enterprise market, along with Amazon Web Services, users and business owners must continue to protect themselves against even their service providers.
The fact that companies like Snapchat, Twitter and other popular apps are becoming integral to the enterprises, showcases that on corporate level, their huge user bases are being taken noticed of. For the users, it showcases that these companies are increasing their market influence.
- Mobile Platform
The utilisation of mobile software and technology has experienced an exponential growth in the last few years. Smartphones have become integral to the way the developed world functions on a daily basis, the way we communicate and the way we see ourselves. They have become extensions of ourselves and as the costs of smartphones decreases, smartphones will become more accessible to the developing world. Some experts have suggested that more people will have access to smartphones than running water and electricity in some areas of the world.
The smartphone will only continue to increase its influence, becoming essential to the way we interact with the physical world. Companies like Google and Apple are investing in products and services which revolve around the smartphone.
The two big symbols of this include “The Internet of Things” and products in healthcare.
IoT has become a buzzword in the tech world. Considering that Google and Amazon, hedging bets on companies and products like Nest and Amazon Echo, the IoT is obviously a industry which is going to become a big part of our lives, cementing smartphones as the central tool of interacting with the world.
For health, the utility of apps to help people monitor and control their health, whether it would fitness apps or even helping people fight challenging heart conditions, the smartphone will play a big part in that. This industry wide focus on healthcare, is all in pursuit of the “quantified self”, where people have information on how their bodies are functioning on a daily basis.
While these products and services are undoubtedly going to aid society, if we consider the market share which some companies have in this space, including Google’s Android OS, and Apple phones, we must again acknowledge the huge power these companies wield when we willingly give our trust in them and protect ourselves accordingly.
- Physical World
One of the main focusses of this series is to highlight the disconnect currently between our liberties and rights held in the physical world, compared to its lack of protection in the digital world. For many companies, the integration of software and hardware, the digital world and the real world, this is the primary focus.
Functions like collecting shopping, transportation, healthcare and even turning on the heating in your house are all being engulfed by the technology industry. Even if we take some of the most ambitious projects like artificial intelligence and advanced robotics, we see an increasing development towards combining the worlds.
The question remains, in the midst of this drive, why isn’t maintaining the safeguarded liberties which is taken for granted in the western world, not as much as a focus?
Marc Andreeson, a well-known venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, has suggested that “software is eating the world”. Companies like Just Eat, Uber and Apple, tare pioneering the effort to make interacting with the physical world revolve around and be powered by technology. It is another example of just how much reach and influence these companies have in and well have in our lives.
While this may seem like an indictment of the technology industry, the reason why acknowledging and understanding these ideas is that in order to fully embrace these technologies, we must all be safe in the knowledge that our liberties are being safeguarded in the digital world.
If we live in a world where the technologies we enjoy on a daily basis are being monitored and analysed from all angles, then, as mentioned in the previous article, we change our behaviour, we modify our actions to fit in with social norms, in fear of having information you deemed to be private being exposed, whatever the information is.
When we sign up and willingly use these services and platforms, we also sign a contract of trust. While we automatically think we can trust these companies, it is the interests of society and users around the world that we understand the influence and access of these companies. This is not to say these companies should not have this amount of influence. We live in a capitalist society. The whole point of the system is for people to become capitalists, to accumulate money. However, to fully enjoy these services we must take into our own hands, our digital safety, not only relying on these companies to protect our interests.