“If you’re living a normal life, you have nothing to worry about.”
That quote, which appears in this Atlantic article, seems on its surface a mere variation on the old untrue truism “If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear.”
Bad, but not news.
But as the headline and theme of the linked article clearly show, data gathering and selling is now truly beginning to affect every aspect of our lives. And is doing so in ways that are used to judge us as “fit” or “unfit” to function in society — ways that permit no appeal. Often it’s done in ways that permit no knowledge of what’s being done to us. Increasingly, the definition of “normal life” is being judged by secret data and proprietary algorithms.
Whether we are “living a normal life” (“normal” by some standard other than our own) increasingly determines whether we can get a job, rent an apartment, be accepted into an educational program, or get financing. In the future, if there’s no iron will to change the stupidity, data and the way it’s parsed will determine even more about how we are “allowed” to function — or not function.
Yes, this sort of covert social engineering has been going on for some time. Obscenities like TSA profiling and denying various must-have functions to anyone without government ID have been obvious, longstanding ways of sujugating and manipulating us.
But now we are talking about the private sector — banks and apartment owners and schools and prospective employers having, thanks to data-peddlers, an even more pervasive and unjust control over our lives.
I know, I know, some purist with a head full of free-market cliches is going to point out that, “In a free society, if you don’t like the way a business operates you have the choice not to deal with them.” Yada yada. There are people in the freedomista world for whom covert control is evil only when done by governments. Private sector? Must be no problem. And in a truly free society, with truly free markets, I’d cheerfully agree. Well, not about covert control being okay, but about the freedom to go to some company that doesn’t indulge in such.
But do you in fact have a choice when data is being gathered on you covertly, run through algorithms you aren’t privy to, then sold to other companies who may never disclose its crucial effect on your life? Does a private employment pre-screening service or a company that determines whether or not you’re allowed to rent an apartment give you any more real choice than the TSA or the NSA does?
Certainly, you have a choice “not to deal with” such companies and tactics IF you’re willing to be pushed to increasing levels of Outlawry and life on the fringes of society. You have no choice if they’re mining data about you without your consent and comparing it with others (the willing and unwilling), to determine your place in society. You have no choice and no appeal if your social-media profile, and those of your online friends, tell them you’re too high-risk.
Do you think, good libertarian that you are that you do have a choice (the choice many of us have already made) not to have a social-media profile? Well then: your lack of a social-media profile tells them you’re either one of those “lone-nut with gun” types who’s too unpleasant for anybody to talk to or you’re one of those “militia types” who’s probably communicating either by encryption or by carrier pigeon because you “have something to hide” and should no doubt be reported to The Authorities. Either way, when the algorithms decide — you lose. You lose even more thoroughly than you lose when idiots in the DoJ, SPLC, or someplace sit down and make up profiles of “dangerous” people out of their own prejudices and desire for self-importance.
(And yes, a few of you might recognize that the carrier pigeon reference also references my early book, I Am Not a Number!. Writing about communications options, I speculated that privacy seekers in truly dire times might resort to ye olde messenger birdies. Advice to budding authors: Never accept a five-minute interview on some media outlet you don’t know inside and out. Five minutes is common among big outfits, but those five-minute jobs are rarely friendly to you. Some syndicate that serves the most gaudy sort of tabloids picked up on the pigeon thing, ignoring everything else in the book, and blarted it nationwide.)
There is, of course, always the modern monkeywrench of creating a completely “normal” (whatever that means) social-media profile for yourself while you go more quietly about your Outlaw business. That could be fun. But take care! Because these increasingly extensive private snoop systems also judge you by your friends’ activities. Exchange gmails with people who have lousy credit scores, have Twitter followers who love to party, get FB likes from intense types who care a little too much about conspiracy theories? You could get tarred with their algorithmic brush.
These data-pushing and data-controling “private” companies (and yes, I wonder how many of them are funded by some Uber-Government agency) are undertaking the social functions of a country village or a modern-day high school. But those old-line institutions, as nasty and arbitrary and occasionally as downright murderous as they could be, could usually be escaped or sometimes appealed to. And they judged only for themselves. Not for the world.
Of course, data and/or algorithms will be forever faulty and as difficult to appeal to as my friend’s sad experience with gun-rights restoration shows.
Although it’s true that the data businesses and their customers (not us) benefit most from accurate data, accurately interpreted, their ideas of fair and accurate might not match ours.
For example, take something that currently operates and is much simpler than some of these newly born social evaluation systems. See how “fairness and accuracy” work out in the real world, That is, take a look at the Fair-Isaac Corporation’s famous FICO credit-scoring system. You cannot get a loan or a credit card these days without a FICO score from one of the three credit-rating agencies, Equifax, TransUnion, or Experian. That has been true for a couple of decades. Increasingly, jobs and housing rental also hinge at least in part on your Holy Score.
FICO scores are arrived at only by looking at your financial activity, not whether your F*c*b**k page shows that you get blackout drunk every Friday or your Twitter feed shows you love Jesus. In fact, FICO scores are so deliberately limited by law that they can’t and don’t even include matters like your income, your sex, your race, your age, or even your zip code.
I stress again, this is a relatively simple system of the present. For all its overwhelming dominance of the financial world, FICO scoring is far less invasive than systems now coming into force and on the horizon.
Within the data that the FICO gods do analyze (your credit-card spending, whether you have a mortgage or a car loan or a student loan, whether you’ve got any bankruptcies, financial judgments against you, or have made late payments, etc.), they work very hard to make their super-secret algorithms as useful as possible for their paying customers.
But over at MyFico.com, one of the most knowlegeable credit forums, which resides at the very heart of the FICO system, you will always find weeping, wailing, and total confusion over all the weird sh*t that happens to people’s scores. And the weeping and wailing is justified:
“I paid off my car loan. I thought for sure that would be a good thing. But they punished me by dropping my score 35 points! WHY? Am I less reliable because I pay my bills ahead of time?” “All I did was have all my credit-card balances at zero this month and they dinged me 9 points, citing non-use of credit when I actually use credit all the time. What gives???” “How did I lose 28 points just for applying for one credit card?”
The fact is that the ever-changing (New! Improved!) FICO algorithms are just “smart” enough to be generally useful and just stupid enough to do stumbling, bumbling harm. But the harm is merely to individuals, who don’t count for much, and the benefit is to the financial institutions who long craved an easier system for determining creditworthiness. I’m not opposed to FICO. But I’ve seen enough to know that such attempts to quantify human behavior always end up so overly simplistic and full of idiocies that if they were human’s their IQ would be in double digits.
And don’t tell me those sort of results would improve with “better” (meaning more plentiful) data, which the newer social-engineering systems are accessing. Won’t happen. The low-IQ systems will never become genius. Because a) The algorithms are never smart enough to evaluate real, human complexity; b) they can be manipulated for all manner of purposes other than those stated; c) private enterprise of this type is a catspaw for Uber-Government. In so many ways.
All this means is that as these soullessly data-based systems increasingly determine society’s “normal” and “abnormal,” as they increasingly reward the “winners” and reject the “losers,” the already-marginal are going to be pushed further to the margins. Theoretically that’s fine for the Outlaw Community. Good people joining in. But there’s marginal and then there’s marginal as you well know. For that matter, the kind of secure, established, “normal,” “approved” classes such systems will help establish ain’t so fine, either.
Of course, many factors are pushing us toward a society of haves-and-have-nots. Data mining and data selling are just newcomers to the club. But IMHO they’re among the most dangerous.
And on what seems an unrelated topic, but isn’t: It’s hardly a surprise that we’re now hearing serious talk about some type of guaranteed government flat-income-for-all system for the first time since the 1960s. The idea is for guaranteed income to replace the more selective and old-fashioned welfare programs. Now we’re going to need something simpler. Something your currently average Joe Blow can qualify for. Because you know what happens when PTB push too many marginal people further into the margins while boosting others into privileged classes.
Better hurry now and offer those worthless little “abnormal” people on the margins stipends to keep them quiet. Otherwise they can be quite a nuisance.