Comedian Baratunde Thurston Sees Opportunity in Our Personal Data Crisis | Tech News

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Futurist comedian Baratunde Thurston recently penned a Medium post to urge people to think differently about their personal data. His main argument: we care a lot less than we should, and it’s time to take back control. In vein with our 2018 global theme, “Closer,” the piece explains why the evolution of digital technology has proved to be a double-edge sword, providing us with access to a universe of experiences and information but oftentimes doing so at the expense of our personal data.

Here are some key takeaways from his two-part article, which you can read in full here:

Taking back control

Teeing up his personal experience of conducting his own “data detox,” Thurston states, “I understand that our data is being collected to make products more useful to us and to make us more useful to advertisers. But seeing the surveillance economy all in one place made that truth more stark — and more unsettling.”

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Starting with Google, Thurston listed out every Alphabet-owned service he used. These included Google Docs, YouTube, Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Photos, Contacts, Translate, Chrome, Maps, Wallet, and, to no surprise, the search engine. This list was followed up by another that contained the bits of information Thurston anticipated these service would have on him. By far the most shocking was the Google Maps log he found from a London trip he’d taken that documented his up-to-the-minute locations and whether he was traveling by train, ferry, bike, or foot.

Another key thing to add to your checklist when doing a data detox is myactivity.google.com. As Thurston explains, depending on your settings, this site is able to keep tab on every search query you’d ever run, the majority of your visited websites, and nearly every step you’d taken in the process. This led him to do a full Google Privacy checkup, which brings us to the next items necessary for your list: default settings for logging and sharing, security and privacy settings, and advertising tags.

For example, Thurston found that his settings were automatically set to “Let people with your phone number find and connect with you on Google services, such as video chats.” On Google+ his settings were set to auto-share his photos and likes and restaurant reviews. In Google’s advertising settings, he noticed you could see a list of topics which the site thinks he’s interested in–these can either be edited or disabled completely. Further, on YouTube his settings were defaulted to automatically show videos he liked and channels he subscribed to.

Switching over to Facebook, Thurston was shocked at what he found when navigating to the “Apps and Websites” and “Ads” settings. Primarily, he noted their interesting location on the page. While “Security and Login” and “Privacy” were at the top of the list, directly under “General” settings, the ones for “Apps and Websites” and “Ads” were placed much lower on the list. Moreover, not only was the 400 authorized apps collecting his data mind-boggling to Thurston, but he also noted that even if you delete them (which, FYI, can’t be done in bulk), these don’t change what data it already has collected about you once deleted. That is, while they can’t make requests at that point for additional information from you, they still may have access to what you previously shared.

Concerning mobile apps, Thurston underscores a fundamental issue: the length of today’s term of service (TOS) agreements. Looking at Evernote specifically, he recorded 29,000 words, which took him roughly 3 hours to read from start to end. For reference, if he were to read all of the TOSs for his 313-installed apps, this would take him about 940 hours.

Why does all of this matter? Per Thurston, “our data is being used to impact things far beyond the ads and content we see….We’re the raw material for the next phase in computer science.” These include emerging techs like AI, machine learning, and face and speech recognition.

The moral of the story? No, we’re not doomed. By implementing the following key steps into our routines, we’ll be well on our way to maintaining control today and in the years ahead:

  • Tune your settings
  • Secure your network connections
  • Read TOS agreements
  • Avoid “data grabby” services (services that take a lot of your data) and opt for less-invasive options
  • Conduct a data detox

Making some demands

Now that he has assessed the state of his personal data, Baratunde has six demands from ‘big tech’ companies, as outlined in Part II of the series.

Overall, he notes that “social media is being used to undermine democracy.” This was a key theme at our recent SMWNYC conference this past April and one that continues to dominate the cultural conversation. While it’s a crisis, it’s also an opportunity.

Additionally, he calls out that “we can’t act individually” because “companies value us collectively.” This said, restoration of balance involves adopting the mindset that we’re all in this together and it will continue to be a joint effort between the tech giants and us, the people.

Here’s a glance at Thurston’s demands:

  • Offer Real Transparency Around Data Collection and Usage – Seeing how our data is being traced and used should be as simple as finding out someone has “liked” one of our posts. It needs to be clear, stated upfront, and we must know how it’s being monetized even if the raw data itself isn’t being sold.
  • Change Data Defaults From Open to Closed – “Tech companies should treat our data like added sugar or reality TV, and consume as little of it as possible,” says Thurston. To achieve this, he proposes flipping the defaults on their head, so defaults employ a “data conservationist” approach.
  • Respect Our Right to Our Own Data – The fact of the matter is, without our data, tech companies wouldn’t have anything to monetize and emerging tech, like AI, wouldn’t have the intellect that it does. For this reason, Thurston claims we should have full ownership of how the data we generate and the data derived from our activities is used.
  • Diversify Who’s At the Table – At the end of the day, technology is developed by people, people who have, as Thurston notes, “biases and blind spots.” For this reason, the process should include more individuals from outside of the space who think differently about ethics, privacy, and its ability to facilitate abuse in addition to research teams looking closely into the outcomes of these systems.
  • Implement New Laws and New Rules – Thurston points out there’s a “worrying lack of understanding of technology at the highest level of the U.S. government.” To address these, he proposes tech companies encouraging more regulation, but it’s also on us to voice the need for a more modern take on data and regulation surrounding its use.
  • Enable Users to Collect and Analyze our Own Data – For Thurston, true balance of power relies on reevaluating what we do with the data itself. If more tech companies empowered users to collect and analyze their own data, we could build a culture of “better neighbors, partners, artists, citizens, and humans, rather than just better products to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.”

In all, Thurston paints a conflicting picture of technology and humanity, which was reinforced by a survey we conducted this past April in partnership with YouGov. On the one hand, we rely upon tech and social media to bring us closer to friends and family as well as gather news and information about the world. At the same time, we’ve seen over the past several years how this promise has become conflated with cases of “fake news,” data scandals, and the like, painting a much more pervasive picture about the power these platforms and services hold.

Featured image illustration: Tiago Galo

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