Large-scale commercial data exploitation damages autonomy, equality, democracy, dignity

Cracked Labs examines the impact on individuals, groups, and wider society of the corporate use of personal information as it feeds into automated decision-making, personalisation, and data-driven manipulation. On the web, companies track us via hidden software that collects information about the sites we use, our navigation patterns, and even our keystrokes, mouse movements, and scrolling activity and transmits it to hundreds of third-party companies. Similarly, smartphones send a flow of information about our everyday lives to Google, Apple, app providers, and many third-party companies. The companies that receive this data can use it to evaluate, judge, sort, rank, and single out individuals on an unprecedented scale.

The result is to subject individuals to unknown risks. Particular problems include dataveillance, social sorting, identification, and profiling. Former barriers  between data about online and offline behaviours are crumbling, often because customer database management platforms and payment data bridge the two. Some insurance programmes in the US and EU offer consumers discounts in return for real-time data about their daily activities. 

Increasingly, this data is analysed to determine our value as employees, tenants, borrowers, and customers. Automated eligibility criteria can exclude people outright, charge them more, or limit the services they are offered, decisions that often fall into unregulated or legal grey areas. These decisions may be wrong, but inscrutable: the input data may be incomplete or inaccurate, misinterpreted or biased; decisions may reinforce existing prejudices. Preventing these problems requires updated legal frameworks, increased transparency about data practices, and a major collective effort.

Writer: Wolfie Christl
Publication: Cracked Labs
Publication date: 2017-10