Profiling America: Big Data Knows Everything About You

bigdataaug082016

By PNW Staff August 08, 2016

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The twentieth-century can be seen as a struggle between individualism and collectivism, whether it was the fight against totalitarian regimes in World War II or the Cold War’s struggle between capitalism and communism.

This collection of data, done on a massive scale by the Stasi of East Germany for example, was a massive undertaking meant to locate any dissent to totalitarian rule before it could become organized, but it was also very resource intensive. That has all changed in the digital age.

Behold the emergence of Big Data, a privately controlled market-driven force that relentlessly compiles information to create profiles on every consumer, anywhere.

Edward Snowden made headlines for leaking classified NSA data collection on US citizens, and US tech companies have been vocal advocates against government intrusion, but far less has been said about the private sector’s collection of personal data and its use in creating databases of profiles.

Companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Google make money by collecting and monetizing data on customer spending habits. But suppose that thousands of bits of information you leave behind could be gathered together?

Imagine for a moment the countless scraps of data you leave around you: your book purchase history, the emails you write, the websites you visit, your health conditions, where you use your credit card, which coupons you use, what you search on Google, what cars you buy, when you were late for payments, what you pay in taxes, who you call, photos of your license plate.

Collecting thousands of individual pieces of data on every person in the country and combining it into profiles is the work of companies such as Interactive Data Intelligence (IDI), whose database, idiCORE, is available to its clients, whether they be private detectives, lenders, political campaigns or marketing companies.

IDI, like much of the data-fusion industry, traces its lineage to Hank Asher, a former cocaine smuggler and self-taught programmer who began fusing sets of public data from state and federal governments in the early 1990s. After Sept. 11, law enforcements interest in commercial databases grew, and more money and data began raining down, says Julia Angwin, a reporter who wrote about the industry in her 2014 book, Dragnet Nation.

Asher died suddenly in 2013, leaving behind his company, the Last One (TLO), which credit bureau TransUnion bought in bankruptcy for $154 million. Ashers disciples, including Dubner, left TLO and eventually teamed up with Michael Brauser, a former business partner of Ashers, and billionaire health-care investor Phillip Frost. In May 2015, after a flurry of purchases and mergers, the group rebranded its database venture as IDI.

Taking advantage of the abundance of private information flowing across the wires and with a quarterly revenue of $40 million dollars, IDI’s business model of selling detailed personal profiles is obviously working.

Most people don’t pay any heed to the terms of service (TOS) when opening an account with nearly any website or business, but if they did they would find clauses that allow an almost unlimited use of their personal data.

This monetization of personal data has been at the heart of Google’s and Facebook’s success, allowing them very directly to target advertising. But Big Data has quietly begun to take this further by combining dozens of large databases in this so-called data-fusion industry. The combination of information gleaned from separate databases allows the creation of ever more targeted profiles.

Gun ownership, religion, race, credit history, purchase history, web habits, reading list, health profile and many other factors contribute to build profiles such as: “Affluent Baby Boomer”, “Rural Everlasting” (low education, low net-worth rural consumers), “Elvis memorabilia collectors”, “alcoholism sufferers,” and even “rape sufferers.” Data brokers create hundreds of such labels classify nearly every person over age 12 in the US and sell these detailed profiles without the knowledge of most consumers.

Putting aside the creepy nature of this lack of privacy in the modern world, many people do not see the harm in a system that will provide them more helpful services and products in exchange for their privacy.

Small invasions of privacy, each one of little significance by itself, has inured the average person to this serious invasion of privacy, but China now offers a glimpse at the ultimate dystopian goal  such a system is heading towards.

In what the ACLU calls a “warning for Americans”, China has adopted a system of “citizen scores” that uses hundreds of data points to track the behavior of every Chinese citizen and create a score of acceptable behavior that is publicly displayed on social networks.

The government-sponsored system is run by the two largest Chinese social media/commerce companies, Alibaba and Tencent, having access to an incredible range of information. Much like a credit score, every person receives a rating between 350 and 950 but this rating determines far more than credit worthiness, being calculated by hundreds of other factors that ensure compliance with the government.

Writing subversively will lower one’s score, as will buying video games or reading certain books. Perhaps even scarier, simply being friends with those who have lower scores will lower one’s score, creating a powerful social incentive towards government-approved behavior and political compliance.

The scores are publicly available on every citizen’s online profile. Lower scores restrict education, travel and employment while higher scores allow visa options (to Singapore for instance) and government loans and access to jobs.

This is a powerful example of what is known as gamification of social behavior, wherein game theory is applied to billions of people who struggle to earn points in a game in which corporations and the government provide the rules. Voicing any objection or trying to step outside such a system cuts one off from work, education, finances, travel and brings social consequences.

Ultimately, this information-age method of control promises to be a far more powerful tool of control than the blunt instrument of secret police agencies, torture chambers and re-education camps. And vastly more efficient.

Up to now, the system in China has been voluntary, but over 100,000 people are already proudly promoting their scores on the Chinese version of Twitter. The social point system will become mandatory for all Chinese citizens in the year 2020.

The system in place in the West is already nearly as omniscient with regards to our personal data, but it is also both capitalist and private with virtually no government oversight or regulation.

Setting aside the abuses already present in the private model, there remains an inevitable question: how long until Western nations realize the incredible potential for controlling every thought and behavior of their citizens through data-driven social scores?

The data-bases already exist. The social profiles are already created. The media infrastructure is already in place. The political lust for power is strong.

 How obedient will you become to earn points towards your citizen score? Perhaps you might even agree to take a ‘mark’, to show your loyalty to the state or if it were required for buying or selling? (Revelation 13.16, 17)

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