BY NOAH KEATE
The adjective ‘Big’ has been used to describe a whole multitude of different organisations and platforms. Big Tobacco. Big Pharma. Big Tech. Their label is applied in a far reaching, but often ambiguous manner. Yet what is nearly always an identifying thread are companies with the interest of profits, not the consumer, at their heart. This drives accusations of a monopolisation, which negates scrutiny and limits any kind of competition.
Carissa Véliz has ambitiously delved into one of those Big groups in the form of Big Tech in her book ‘Privacy is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data’. Everyone - in the western world at least - is aware how real and clear Big Tech is in framing our daily lives. From phone usage, to GPS for visiting locations, smart household devices, and filing data, Véliz paints a dangerous and concerning picture - one of data removing any kind of individual identity.
‘Privacy is Power’ highlights the numerous ways in which data can be used to manipulate and control us, all without our consent. Big Tech companies, despite their reliance on individual accounts, are often inherently dehumanising. With clicks, views, and the amount of time spent on an app as a top priority, any kind of human needs and interests are put as a secondary concern.
Véliz is also quite fairly willing to shoulder humans with some of the responsibility for allowing the actions of tech to run rampant. Everyday we click to accept cookies without understanding what they are (or maybe that’s just me). When arriving at a new location of employment, we quite happily share any required data in a bid to impress our new boss. And haven’t all of us tagged a family member in a social media post, perhaps without their permission?
I have always believed data is morally neutral. Having a large amount of statistics about individuals collated into one spreadsheet is neither morally virtuous nor sinful. However, where moral judgement arises is in the collection and usage of such data. If users did not knowingly consent for information about them to be shared, ethical questions are clearly raised. Similarly, if the data is used for malicious purposes, then the privacy of individuals is undoubtedly being violated.
I felt the book was sometimes slightly hyperbolic in its examples. Véliz frequently referenced how data collection was used by the Nazis for their purely evil purposes. While of course this was the case, it seemed the book was following Godwin’s Law - which states that every conversation or discussion will eventually mention Hitler. The book, despite its admirably concise length, seemed to lack a wider number of examples and context.
‘Privacy is Power’ also seemed short on the answers. While it is very easy to diagnose the problem, not least in relation to Big Tech, identifying the solution is far harder. My problems with Véliz’s proposals were twofold - firstly, they seemed far too reliant on individual actions. If material change is going to arise, structural solutions are necessary.
Secondly, Véliz’s responses sometimes seemed immensely regressive; focusing on a ‘dumb is best’ approach, with reference to, say, smart kettles, alongside an encouragement of greater reliance on pen and paper. Surely the answer is not to reject technological innovation, but ensure it is not used for exploitative ends.
Indeed, society should continue to embrace data, for there are periods where it can be immensely effective and life changing. It was thanks to data that the vaccination rollout in the UK was as good as it was, with GPs being able to contact patients in order of priority. In fact, it was surely a lack of effective data which caused the Windrush scandal, where groups were mistakenly told they had no right to remain in the UK.
Though ‘Privacy is Power’ doesn’t offer all the solutions, it is an admirable effort which very clearly presents the real challenge Big Tech poses to democracy. With the UK government introducing an Online Harms Bill, this looks far from being a silver bullet, instead policing speech as harmful in a purely subjective manner. It is this topic to which Véliz could perhaps concentrate on in her next book.
Image: Bantam Press / Privacy is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data