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“If you’re living a normal life, you have nothing to worry about.”

“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.

Anyhow …

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.

20 Comments

  1. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty June 21, 2016 5:38 am

    Wonder what happens when the “dollar” truly dies and the economy finally tanks. When there is little left to steal, and nobody much left willing to pay the Danegeld. I think people are truly starting to discover that no non-voluntary government has any legitimate authority over them… and has zero interest in anything that truly protects and benefits them. Increasing non-compliance and rejection of electoral politics are fair indicators, as is the abject failure of “gun control,” the “war” on drugs, and a lot more.

    No matter what happens, we can be sure that nothing lasts forever. But I’m increasingly glad I probably won’t be around to see this thing to the end. Lots of nasty stuff coming, absolutely. Those who do survive will have the opportunity to build a new society. I do wish I could see that. The best thing, I think, is to plan for that eventuality, and teach freedom to as many of the potential survivors as possible.

  2. David
    David June 21, 2016 6:41 am

    You hit the issue ‘spot on’ – WHO determines what a normal life looks like? I certainly don’t live like a millennial, hanging my ass outbid public and hurrying to post it for all to see. Does that make abnormal, or am I normal for my generation? Considering I prefer to call my kids over posting something I hope they will see, I’m probably not even normal for old folk.

    But I don’t care, either. Freedom has its price, and so far I’ve not found any reason to get back to the corral.

  3. R.L. Wurdack
    R.L. Wurdack June 21, 2016 6:45 am

    It is clearly unlikely that an algorithm can be created that is less dim than its creator, or less evil.

    Imagine for a minute, if you will, a model of the climate…..

  4. Pat
    Pat June 21, 2016 6:54 am

    Define “normal.” People who pigeonhole others have their own definition which is usually tight and unchangeable. And they think you’re trying to confuse the issue if you question their definition. True of most experts, especially psychologists and politicians.

    When the American economy/society does break down, let’s hope the new one remembers the lessons of history. And builds on the last great step that reared its head and brought about the American Revolution. It was doing fine till the Constitution was written, but that took it into another direction that wasn’t originally intended.

    There’s enough freedom-oriented literature out there to goose the minds of rarional people. But are there enough rational people out there to take that one step more away from a constitutional minarchy and toward a truly free society?

  5. Fred
    Fred June 21, 2016 7:23 am

    I owe no man! I love the looks on ‘normal’ people’s faces when I say that. Man, it’s good to be free! The FICO scoring system is not secret and I would push back a little that it’s arbitrary. It’s not arbitrary, it’s simple. Go into debt, lots of debt, pay the minimum every month without missing and you can get a 900. Never pay off anything without a new equal or higher debt. Be a debt slave and you’re all set.

    “…to determine your place in society.”
    This is the problem, being permanently categorized. See, the American dream WAS to have a shot, a chance to make of yourself anything you wanted. I have been many things. I have failed at several things and brushed myself off and tried something else. Everything from roofing to secret government agencies. The variety of my experiences astounds me when I think about it. Is this still possible in the new America?

    Speaking of carrier pigeons (I’m gonna get this comment flagged, it’s fun) learn Book Encryption.

  6. LarryA
    LarryA June 21, 2016 8:41 am

    “If you’re living a normal life, you have nothing to worry about.”

    Said every inquisition ever. For any system based on that criteria, think how it might be used by your worst enemy, whether that’s the Taliban or your mother-in-law.

  7. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal June 21, 2016 9:22 am

    In a free society, if you don’t like the way a business operates you have the choice not to deal with them.
    And, if I ever find myself in a free society, I won’t. Of course, when every business in the area operates the same way, and you aren’t free to open a competing business which will offer a real choice due to government control, you are trapped. This isn’t a free society, not by a long shot.

    It’s the same with anti-gun businesses. Here I can either leave my gun at home, or I can’t go into businesses without breaking their rules. Almost every business has a “no guns” sign by the door. Even stores operated by companies which don’t forbid guns at other locations around the country. Here they do. So, the reality is there is no way to exercise my right and obligation to defend myself and my family without violating other people’s property rights, unless I stay home. I suppose I have no right to leave my house, but that seems bizarre.

    If I invite someone to my property, I invite them with all their rights intact. They may be kicked out for screaming obscenities, but I don’t require them to take a vow of silence to come visit. And, if they start waving a gun around, I may make them leave, but I’m not going to demand they leave their gun lying on the curb before coming onto my property, either. If I don’t trust you armed, I don’t trust you, period. I’m not going to violate you after inviting you onto my property, nor will I claim you are consenting to be violated by coming on to my property. Rape still isn’t OK even if you “only” commit it on your own property, against people who were coerced into consenting.

    So, we can debate all day long the things that would be acceptable or possible in a free society, but until we actually experience one, it’s all just hypothetical.

  8. jed
    jed June 21, 2016 10:11 am

    One of the big dangers I see here is that _not_ having social media accounts will be considered abnormal. I already see a bit of this when acquaintances are surprised that I’m not on Facebook. Again, I think of Lessig’s Code, and other Laws of Cyberspace

    And, a whole generation of people are growing up with this as their “normal”. We talked about this phenomenon in the past, when RFID first starting getting traction, with all the “wonderful” tracking capabilities which were being envisioned. Hmmm, don’t hear much about Katherine Albrecht these days.

    However, this all actually started in the private sector, with data sharing and aggregation used for credit scores. That’s the industry where data mining and ‘big data’ was born. I’ve been raising this flag since the late 90’s. Of course, this a Quixotic struggle at this point.

    Related: Privacy not possible with increasing financial surveillance

    See also RFC 1149 – A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers. IIRC, this has actually been attempted.

    Meanwhile, it seems there’s no escape from it, other than to pull out completely. But that’s close to impossible, and a very hard choice to make, when you consider questions such as, “what if I fall and break my hip”, or, “how will I deal with a heart attack, or cancer”, and more generally, “how will this work when I get old”.

  9. Ellendra
    Ellendra June 21, 2016 10:18 am

    “If you’re living a normal life, you have nothing to worry about.”

    And yet, no politician, regulator, or anti-privacy hack will allow the same kind of scrutiny over their own dealings. By their own logic, that means they have something to hide, yes?

  10. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty June 21, 2016 10:34 am

    It won’t work, Jed… Until the whole thing topples and real life takes over. Maybe not even then. But all the things we have to do without now to be free(er) is the sticky fly paper.

    I’m “old.” I really need to see a doctor for something. I have tried twice now, and get nonsense for answers. I also get all the propaganda about “insurance,” Medicare part B, and so on. I’m not buying. And I’m pretty sure I will not survive for a whole lot longer. That’s pretty much ok with TPTB, of course. They’ve made self care almost impossible, and they are not willing to provide any real care out of the stolen goods, so I’ll eventually be one less old fart underfoot…

    Nobody lives forever, of course… But I’m not going to go quietly. 🙂

  11. Kristophr
    Kristophr June 21, 2016 12:09 pm

    Turn about is fair play. Always video the police and government officials:

    “If you’re doing your lawful duties, you have nothing to worry about.”

  12. jed
    jed June 21, 2016 8:38 pm

    @ML: Yeah, I know it won’t work. And that irritates me. The main thing that irritates me is that underneath it all, is the erosion of our freedom to live the way we see fit. And yes, that fly-paper is pretty damn sticky.

    There’s a part of me that wants to live long enough to see it all come apart, just to witness the dumbstruck expressions.

  13. Jim B.
    Jim B. June 22, 2016 12:43 am

    Hmmm, What’s Normal?

  14. Ron Johnson
    Ron Johnson June 22, 2016 5:13 am

    I worked for a business that for years would do a deep dive background check on any new hire, even though the financial risk was tiny (we paid like crap, and the work was non-critical to life or finances). Many people were turned away without explanation.

    During a downsizing, I inherited the job of approving the hiring. I followed established procedures and did the checks, looking at financial and legal history. Usually I learned things that were not germane to the job. An old bankruptcy. History of past due bills during a period of unemployment. Divorces. Pot busts. domestic squabbles. I felt dirty looking into their private lives.

    One day I was asked to approve a person to be hired in as an assistant manager, and what I saw in the background check was a life that had totally unraveled. How that woman fed herself was beyond me. So I called the store, told them I was not going to approve the hire for assistant, but I was going to let them hire her for a sales job and if they still liked her work in 30 days, they could promote her.

    Within that 30 days she revealed her true character and I heard no more about the store wanting to promote her. That was the last time I ever looked at anyone’s financial or legal background. The new policy was that we would try anyone who seemed acceptable during an interview, then weed them out later. There was no difference in our success/failure rate that I could perceive.

    What I did was a bit risky, however. Various laws in various states can make dismissing an employee tricky. Lots of documentation can be required, and even then the EEOC can make your life hell if the fired employee wants to claim some kind of protected status. I can see how a background check might give HR a sense that they are heading off trouble before it starts. But that wasn’t my practical experience.

  15. JdL
    JdL June 22, 2016 7:58 am

    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.

    I think this statement, and the column as a whole, are overblown. Private companies just want to sell me stuff, not push me around. They may invent silly criteria and deny me an apartment, but competition weeds out companies with silly criteria.

    Anything that distracts from understanding that government is the primary source of evil is a mistake, I think.

  16. Ellendra
    Ellendra June 22, 2016 10:03 am

    @ML: Few doctors these days will see patients on a cash basis, but there are still some out there. Check smaller clinics or individual practices.

  17. Claire
    Claire June 22, 2016 10:04 am

    JdL —

    “I think this statement, and the column as a whole, are overblown.”

    Certainly possible. Most predictions of doom are either overblown, outright wrong, or simply off on their timing. The trend I write about is still ominous.

    “Private companies just want to sell me stuff, not push me around. They may invent silly criteria and deny me an apartment, but competition weeds out companies with silly criteria.”

    Ah, but here’s where you are really wrong. Sure, truly private, unpoliticized companies just want to sell you stuff. Even they might resort to dimwitted efforts to make sure you don’t burn them, but I agree that in a free market competition would take care of that.

    But we don’t live in a free-market world. We live in a world where every company, at some level, especially companies like banks and apartment complexes, answers more to government than it does to customers. Weeding out the “wrong” kind of people and seeking out the “right” kind of people is very much what government mandates and oversees. And “right” and “wrong” are ever-changing definitions that have nothing to do with an individual’s reliability as a customer.

    I’m not saying that gov (so far) directly oversees these systems. (They can still be dumb and unfair without direct government help.) I’m just saying that most business decisions are increasingly politicized and one-size-fits-all (look at automotive design, for example). A bank (for instance) actually has very little interest in pleasing any one ordinary customer. It has a lot of interest in making sure it turns away customers government doesn’t like. Whether the systems I wrote about remain private (but stupid) or are eventually regulated and partially controlled by government, the problem is similar.

    “Anything that distracts from understanding that government is the primary source of evil is a mistake, I think.”

    And anyone who sees government entirely in isolation isn’t looking at the real-world. There’s human nature. There’s crony capitalism. There’s the influence of the mob. There’s “private” lobbying. There’s government regulation that affects “private” business decisions in more ways that we’ll ever know. All of this contributes both to government and the politicization of nominally “private” business.

  18. Claire
    Claire June 22, 2016 10:24 am

    Ron Johnson — Fascinating story. I hope JdL reads your comment.

  19. Claire
    Claire June 22, 2016 10:26 am

    “Hmmm, What’s Normal?”

    And that’s the $64 million question, isn’t it?

    I think LarryA pegged the really important point. It’s not at all about what’s “normal” or not. It’s about having the power to make an arbitrary decision about what’s “normal” or “good” or whatever — then punishing those who don’t fit.

  20. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal June 23, 2016 4:23 pm

    Anything that distracts from understanding that government is the primary source of evil is a mistake, I think.

    The problem is aggression and property violations. Who does it, and why they do it, are sidetracks.

    I’m frequently accused of focusing on government to the exclusion of other bad guys, but I really don’t. The thing is, government employees are the only bad guys who are enthusiastically supported by their victims. Almost everyone recognizes that the mugger is a bad guy, but most also make an exception for the cop committing the exact same act in broad daylight on the side of the road.

    Government isn’t the primary source of evil- it is just another disease-ridden cockroach among many. But it’s the only one people refuse to stomp. It’s where the bad guys go to avoid rightful consequences.

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