In the Los Angeles Review of Books, philosopher Evan Selinger takes issue with many of the conclusions (and built-in assumptions) compiled in Dataclysm—a new book by Christian Rudder, who co-founded the dating site OKCupid and now heads the site’s data analytics team. While Selinger’s whole essay is really interesting, I was particularly struck by his comments on big data and privacy.
“My biggest issue with Dataclysm,” Selinger writes,
lies with Rudder’s treatment of surveillance. Early on in the book he writes: ‘If Big Data’s two running stories have been surveillance and money, for the last three years I’ve been working on a third: the human story.’ This claim about pursuing a third path isn’t true. Dataclysm itself is a work of social surveillance.
It’s tempting to think that different types of surveillance can be distinguished from one another in neat and clear ways. If this were the case, we could say that government surveillance only occurs when organizations like the National Security Agency do their job; corporate surveillance is only conducted by companies like Facebook who want to know what we’re doing so that they effectively monetize our data and devise strategies to make us more deeply engaged with their platform; and social surveillance only takes place in peer-to-peer situations, like parents monitoring their children’s phones, romantic partners scrutinizing each other’s social media feeds….
But in reality, surveillance is defined by fluid categories.
While each category of surveillance might include both ethical and unethical practices, the point is that the boundaries separating the categories are porous, and the harms associated with surveillance might seep across all of them.
Increasingly, when corporations like OKCupid or Facebook analyze their users’ data and communications in order to uncover “social facts,” they claim to be acting in the interest of the common good
, rather than pursuing self-serving goals. They claim to give us clear windows into our society. The subtitle of Rudder’s book, for example, is “Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking).” As Selinger notes,
Rudder portrays the volume of information… as a gift that can reveal the truth of who we really are. … [W]hen people don’t realize they’re lab rats in Rudder’s social experiments, they reveal habits—‘universals,’ he even alleges… ‘Practically as an accident,’ Rudder claims, digital data can now show us how we fight, how we love, how we age, who we are, and how we’re changing.’
Of course, Rudder should contain his claims to the “we” who use OKCupid (a 2013 study by the Pew Research Trust found that 10% of Americans report having used an online dating service
). Facebook has a stronger claim to having a user base that reflects all of “us.” But there are other entities that sit on even vaster data troves than Facebook’s, even more representative of U.S. society overall. What if a governmental organization were to decide to pursue the same selfless goals, after carefully ensuring that the data involved would be carefully anonymized and presented only in the aggregate (akin to what Rudder claims to have done)?
In the interest of better “social facts,” of greater insight into our collective mindsets and behaviors, should we encourage (or indeed demand from) the NSA to publish “Who Americans Are (Whey They Think No One’s Watching)”? To be followed, perhaps, by a series of “Who [Insert Various Other Nationalities] Are (When They Think No One’s Watching)”? Think of all the social insights and common good that would come from that!
In all seriousness, as Selinger rightly points out, the surveillance behind such no-notice-no-consent research comes at great cost to society:
Rudder’s violation of the initial contextual integrity [underpinning the collection of OKCupid user data] puts personal data to questionable secondary, social use. The use is questionable because privacy isn’t only about protecting personal information. People also have privacy interests in being able to communicate with others without feeling anxious about being excessively monitored. … [T]he resulting apprehension inhibits speech, stunts personal growth, and possibly even disinclines people from experimenting with politically relevant ideas.
With every book subtitled “Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking),” we, the real we, become more weary, more likely to assume that someone’s always looking. And as many members of societies that have lived with excessive surveillance have attested, that’s not a path to achieving the good life