This morning I thumbed the smartphone weather app in the hope of seeing a forecast of sunshine for the weekend. The response I got was the phone asking me where I was. Wait a minute; who are you? My mother? What does where I am have anything to do with a weather forecast for a location already logged in the phone? Precisely nothing, that’s what.
This was just the latest reminder of the data being harvested about us all the time, and which we are apparently relaxed about giving away. The casualty of this is already our privacy. Facebook spent several years allowing developers to harvest data not only about its users, but also about their friends. Some premium services of teamworking apps allow purchasers to download all of the data from individuals’ workspaces, apparently without saying they’re doing it. Supermarkets know what you buy, and how much of it. Facebook sold data about millions of us to Cambridge Analytica through n app called ‘This is Your Digital Life’. And now Apple clients in China find that all of their iCloud data is being stored on servers operated by GCBD, an internet company set up by the Chinese government.
An Orwellian vision
If that all sounds a bit ‘Big Brotherish’, as predicted by George Orwell when he wrote 1984 in 1948, perhaps he got it right. Certainly, we’re three decades beyond his nightmarish vision of the future, but there can be little doubt that we are being watched, and in some detail. The trouble is, we don’t know by whom.
And the next casualty could be that fragile concept of democracy. Did Russia hack the west to influence elections? Who knows. Does the technology even exist to make that possible? Who knows that either.
What we do know is that it’s possible to be anyone you want to be on social media; to say just about anything about just about anyone without fear of redress. Invent a persona; say what you like. At least some people will believe it. The result is a growth in the politics of hate; the erosion of a consensus view; of the ability to appreciate that someone else is entitled to a point of view different from one’s own.
So where do we go from here?
There’s no doubt that technology is good for us. Who’d be without a washing machine if they could afford one? It certainly makes life easier than bashing clothes on a rock by the riverside, even though there are places in the world where people still have to do that.
But we need to be in control, as far as possible. We need to think about what could happen to the information we share so freely, that is chipping away at our privacy.
We need to be aware that our phones can track our every move and turn that feature off.
We need to think about who’ll use information the social media post in which we say we’re having a good time in whatever restaurant we happen to be in, and what they’ll use it for.
We need to spend hard cash with the greengrocer or the corner shop or the butcher down the road, rather than with the supermarket, where the constant blipping of tills records the details of our lives. (And what business is it of the supermarket to know what size pants you’ve just bought? Oh, yes; they know all right.)