We are on our way to Digital Serfdom

We have been on a path to our digital serfdom for the past 15 years – without realizing it.  This path to hell has been lined with free online video games, social media, search, mail and chat services.  We made a Faustian bargain – free social media and services that would have otherwise cost us a couple of dollars, in return for complete loss of privacy and annoying targeted ads that follow us everywhere.

To be fair to Google and Facebook, we clicked on the “Agree” button without reading their terms of use to let them track us not just while using their apps or services but everywhere on the internet.   By using their services that we cannot live without, we turned them into powerful giants. And now, much like the robber barons of a century ago, no upstart is able to compete and dislodge them – it’s American capitalism at work.

So where’s the rub?  Putin recently quipped whoever becomes the leader in Artificial Intelligence (AI) will become the ruler of the world.  Good for us – we have these Silicon Valley giants Facebook and Google with the resources to build the world’s best AI engines for use in unmanned drones to fight distant battles or in cyber countermeasures to outfox the Russians and the Chinese. But, with no ethical or regulatory guidelines, Silicon Valley giants could easily employ AI beyond managing our thermostats and start making decisions for us, decisions we may like or those that could harm us.

AI engines are only as powerful as the data that is fed into them. Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet, Apple and Microsoft hold some of the largest databases with our online activity history. They and other ad platforms like them, combine our online histories with our offline demographic and financial information like addresses, political leanings, house values and mortgages owed to create our socio economic profiles.

Feed your profile into their AI engines and they can literally “think” for us.  Some of these data giants have bragged that by using this data and our profiles, they can forecast what we will be thinking before we even start thinking about something.

It is not too farfetched to imagine Google’s Nest or Amazon’s Alexa, which know when you are “at home, switching on your favorite TV show.  But, there will come a day when these devices and their cloud based masters will dictate what you watch and not let you change the channel unless you have spent an obligatory 15 minutes watching ads.   Or, your free autonomous car ride sponsored by Starbucks will go out of the way to stop at the coffee shop regardless of whether you are in the mood for coffee. Don’t want coffee – there is a penalty for that, your autonomous free taxi will stop in the parking lot for 10 minutes while you fume.  Talking about fuming, no worries, anti-hypertension meds have been auto ordered for you – gratis.

These examples cease being funny when you consider that results from their AI engines predicting your behavioral risks could be sold to insurance companies who could upcharge you accordingly. Or, they could compute your IQ based on your habit of watching cat and dog videos on social media and report your score to prospective employers or your kid’s college admissions office, much like your credit reports today.

We already have a divided country politically, and our free newsfeeds give us more stories that tilt towards our political leanings, preventing us from examining alternative perspectives and dividing us further.  Could this brainwashing lull us into accepting AI engines and digital serfdom from our new masters, Google and Facebook?

Another worry, today our data resides securely with these tech companies, but they could be hacked just like Equifax and spy agencies from North Korea or even criminals could use that data to cause havoc.

So what can we do about this loss of personal data privacy and security?

We need to gain control over our personal data and protect our privacy and security – and only allow trusted AI engines to do limited thinking for us.  We must own our personal activity data and be able to lease it to trusted parties on our terms.  We need the ability to choose who gets our data, for what purpose and how long can they keep it.

How about Congress securing our privacy? Good luck with that in the short term. With their hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying funds feeding congressional reelection campaigns, the prospect of Congress restraining Google and Facebook or turning them into regulated utilities is unlikely.  For now, the best privacy advocates can get out of Congress are laws that require these giants to explicitly state their privacy policies with clear tracking opt-outs.

We can start the Fight to end Digital Serfdom now, by clicking our own way to digital freedom.  Let’s use tools to delete cookies and trackers placed by these cyber stalkers within our browsers, opt-out from being profiled by Facebook, Apple and Google and demand that apps and websites have explicit warnings about use of our personal data – much like the cigarette packaging to warn us of risks of smoking.   Our smartphones use operating systems from companies that are also ad platforms, lets demand that our smartphones allow third party personal data leakage blockers to keep our data private.

As the prospect of AI from Silicon Valley giants making life changing decisions for us gets closer, we need to assemble a coalition of those who care about protecting their privacy while there is still time. Liberals, Libertarians and Conservatives, African Americans, Minorities and LGBT – all us who do not want to be profiled. Together we can end our slide into digital serfdom.

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