For 20 years, privacy advocates have been sounding the alarm about commercial online surveillance, the way that companies gather deep dossiers on us to help marketers target us with ads. This pitch fell flat: by and large, people were skeptical of the efficacy of targeted advertising; the ads we got were rarely very persuasive, and when they did work, it was usually because the advertisers had figured out what we wanted and offered to sell it to us.
Privacy advocates tried to explain that persuasion was just the tip of the iceberg. Commercial databases were juicy targets for spies and identity thieves, to say nothing of blackmail for people whose data-trails revealed socially risky sexual practices, religious beliefs, or political views.
Now we’re living through the techlash, and finally people are coming back to the privacy advocates, saying we were right all along; given enough surveillance, companies can sell us anything: Brexit, Trump, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and successful election bids for absolute bastards like Turkey’s Erdogan and Hungary’s Orban.
It’s great that the privacy-matters message is finally reaching a wider audience, and it’s exciting to think that we’re approaching a tipping point for indifference to privacy and surveillance.
But while the acknowledgment of the problem of Big Tech is most welcome, I am worried that the diagnosis is wrong.
Laughable lies about Brexit, Mexican rapists, and creeping Sharia law didn’t convince otherwise sensible people that up was down and the sky was green.
Rather, the sophisticated targeting systems available through Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other Big Tech ad platforms made it easy to find the racist, xenophobic, fearful, angry people who wanted to believe that foreigners were destroying their country while being bankrolled by George Soros.
Remember, too, that the winner in most races is “none of the above,” with huge numbers of voters sitting out the election. If even a small number of these non-voters can be motivated to show up at the polls, safe seats can be made contestable. In a tight race, having a cheap way to reach all the latent Klansmen in a district and quietly inform them that Donald J. Trump is their man is a game-changer.
Cambridge Analytica are like stage mentalists: they’re doing something labor-intensive and pretending that it’s something supernatural. A stage mentalist will train for years to learn to quickly memorize a deck of cards and then claim that they can name your card thanks to their psychic powers. You never see the unglamorous, unimpressive memorization practice. Cambridge Analytica uses Facebook to find racist jerks and tell them to vote for Trump and then they claim that they’ve discovered a mystical way to get otherwise sensible people to vote for maniacs.
…it’s always been obvious that by spying on internet users, you could improve the efficacy of advertising. That’s not so much because spying gives you fantastic insights into new ways to convince people to buy products as it is a tribute to just how ineffective marketing is. When an ad’s expected rate of success is well below one percent, doubling or tripling its efficacy still leaves you with a sub-one-percent conversion rate.
But it was also obvious from the start that amassing huge dossiers on everyone who used the internet could create real problems for all of society that would dwarf the minute gains these dossiers would realize for advertisers.
It’s as though Mark Zuckerberg woke up one morning and realized that the oily rags he’d been accumulating in his garage could be refined for an extremely low-grade, low-value crude oil. No one would pay very much for this oil, but there were a lot of oily rags, and provided no one asked him to pay for the inevitable horrific fires that would result from filling the world’s garages with oily rags, he could turn a tidy profit.
A decade later, everything is on fire and we’re trying to tell Zuck and his friends that they’re going to need to pay for the damage and install the kinds of fire-suppression gear that anyone storing oily rags should have invested in from the beginning, and the commercial surveillance industry is absolutely unwilling to contemplate anything of the sort.
For commercial surveillance to be cost effective, it has to socialize all the risks associated with mass surveillance and privatize all the gains.
There’s an old-fashioned word for this: corruption. In corrupt systems, a few bad actors cost everyone else billions in order to bring in millions – the savings a factory can realize from dumping pollution in the water supply are much smaller than the costs we all bear from being poisoned by effluent. But the costs are widely diffused while the gains are tightly concentrated, so the beneficiaries of corruption can always outspend their victims to stay clear.
Facebook doesn’t have a mind-control problem, it has a corruption problem. Cambridge Analytica didn’t convince decent people to become racists; they convinced racists to become voters.