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D7.4: Implications of profiling practices on democracy

Reply Angelos Yannopoulos:  Title:
 Transparency at the level of government and corporation: joke, yoke, hoax or hope? And ambient intelligence?


Playing the ever more dangerous game of societal evolution

To start with, this author totally agrees with M. Hildebrandt that it is a critical error to concentrate on protecting data when the danger comes from knowledge engineering that is capable of making startling uses of seemingly inconspicuous conventional data. Technically her concern is well founded, legally, socially and psychologically, the problem she describes seems to this author very well argued and is acute.

“Profiling technologies […] can […] impact our sense of self” (M. Hildebrandt) which makes the external dictatorship of an all-seeing but perceptibly interfering Big Brother seem tame in comparison. Humanity will be in trouble if we cannot protect ourselves from such a threat, but doing so requires us to “reinvent our constitutional democracy”. 

Of course, our “constitutional democracy” as it now stands was never simply “invented” at a point in time or by a specific inventor. It is the result of a long struggle between many, opposed parties. Now quoting and mixing from section : “the fragile […] architecture of our contemporary society [with] freedom of speech, privacy [etc] as constitutive features […] is not natural, nor contingent.” The author of this reply admits to strongly feeling that, indeed, the complexity, inefficiency and even ineffectiveness of our legal systems demonstrates that they are nothing more than a much patched-up treaty reflecting the power struggle between government, broader population, resourceful individuals, influential thinkers and so forth. There exists no actual force to make the law rightful or constructive (which might be stated: “rightfulness or any other goodness within a legal system is not somehow natural, nor contingent”). There exist merely the desires and interests of all the parties involved, which at the lowest subdivision is the mass of all living people. Any flavour of “goodness” in the law merely demonstrates that in order for the broader population to exercise its power of sheer numbers, it needs some form of consensus, which is most effectively built upon some construction of common sense. Of course, every party involved tries to build into the law characteristics that will serve its interests, resulting in a monster of bureaucratic insanity, rather than a well-wrought and efficiently actionable representation of humanity’s consensus on the character of goodness.

The fact that humanity in the end fails to defend its own profit is the lesser of the damages brought about by the ruthless competition whose dynamics is the driver behind societal and legal development. It is clear to see that, without an advocate who has something to earn from defending it, any entity of our world is most likely to remain largely or completely undefended by the law. Humanity’s myopic, vulgar and insolent disregard for the well-being of its natural environment is a manifestly obvious example of this (with our much delayed and still terribly weak care for our natural environment, well-nigh always manifested in cases where our continuing to harm it would backfire and cause us severe damage, being no excuse for us in this matter). Another example is that any claim that international law somehow seriously protects weak countries from more powerful ones is just a miserably non-humorous joke. We do not philosophise and legislate as a consequence. Somebody wants to defend or increase his profit and so puts pressure on the system around him to satisfy his requirements. 


This begs the question. What do people have to profit, in the commonly perceived sense of the word, from defending their identity and privacy from the threat posed by so-called “non-invasive” advanced profiling technology? Nobody wants cameras connected to government computers within his home – but that is not what we are discussing. What about biometric sensors in a shop that automatically offer you the products you “really need”?

The threat posed by advanced profiling technologies is already partially dealt with by existing legislation. Of course, this legislation will evolve and, quite probably, incrementally improve, as our awareness of basic characteristics of these technologies improves. The protection of basic personal data from direct publication and manipulation is not at stake. We talk about going so far as to need to “reinvent our constitutional democracy”, but the objective of the radical improvements we call for is to protect people against data mining, inference of behaviour patterns from masses of trivial data, and so on.  

Is the broader population motivated to push forward the massive changes required in order to follow the recommendations of the first two papers of this deliverable? 

Go up to the man in the street and ask for a piece of information that uniquely identifies him – passport number, ID card number, etc. If refused, offer to buy this information. What is the average price for which the “man in the street” would sell sensitive personal identification data? This author would happily place a bet on €20, and it’s definitely not above €100 (on average over a large, random sample), although it is unlikely that this question will ever be turned into a market survey.  


The problem is this. The entities that can profit from abusing advanced profiling technologies can profit immensely, in financial terms and even more importantly, and terribly, in the power to deeply influence and subtly control human beings. Such profits are already being reaped to a very noticeable extent, with prospects for huge growth in the future. In contrast, the individual is clearly motivated to protect obviously sensitive and important personal data, such as that already protected by current law, but is mostly indifferent about and even well-nigh unaware of the possibilities of advanced technologies constructing knowledge in the form of profiles from masses of (independently) trivial data. Furthermore, most individuals are aware of the services that are offered to them on the condition that the service provider is allowed to collect such supposedly trivial data about his customers. People tend to value these services immensely. A majority of supermarket customers accepts the use of loyalty cards, which allows detailed information to be recorded about each customer, while the advantages returned to the customer are commonly worth about one percent of the value of the customer’s normal business with the provider. Advanced services, offering huge perceived conveniences at no cost, but merely with a “reasonable” requirement that the provider needs to collect data in order to offer such embedded intelligence, will find consumers literally craving for them. There is very little pragmatic motivation for the man in the street to defend himself.

In other words. Abusing advanced profiling technologies are a matter of immensely profitable business. Defending privacy and identity from these technologies is a matter of philosophy. However, the long-term threat of collectively and commonly abused advanced profiling technologies is immense. And achieving protection requires the action of the wider populace. 


The outlook is bleak, unless privacy and identity can be effectively protected without requiring too much effort. Can we stop the abuse of advanced profiling technologies without “reinventing our constitutional democracy” (it would be best if we did reinvent it, for sure, but what if we fail to do so, or if we fail to do it effectively)? The next section will present some technological thoughts about how something like this might perhaps be achieved. Alternatively, the broader population could be educated to realise the implications of the matter at stake. However, education has a rather poor record in combating established interests, with the few, extreme examples such as the French revolution not sounding, to this author, realistically comparable to the situation at hand with respect to the issue under discussion.



Reply Angelos Yannopoulos:  fidis-wp7-del7.4.implication_profiling_practices_03.sxw  Transparency at the level of government and corporation: joke, yoke, hoax or hope? And ambient intelligence?
Denis Royer 29 / 45