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Pings, posts and data prisons

County View

County View
John Healy

THE recent Ministerial diktat that, in the near future, a Public Service Card would be mandatory to avail of state benefits - otherwise legally due to the claimant - provoked a storm of resistance. What began as anger over the disclosure that a woman’s state pension had been withheld fed the flames when it transpired that a quarter of travel pass holders would lose access to the scheme because they did not hold a public service card.
It was an issue which prompted my fellow townsman, John Kilkelly, in a letter to The Irish Times, to point out the invasion of personal data which this would imply, since the travel activities of the citizen would be open to scrutiny by whatever branch of government apparatus would be so minded.
A point well made, but at the same time the mere tip of an iceberg where the security of personal data is concerned because, in truth, almost everything we do in this digital age causes us to leak information. And how innocently and unwittingly we do so. Every time we load a news article or make an online purchase or visit a social media site, click a like or a share or add a comment, we expose ourselves to tracking codes. And these in turn feed into technically advanced but faceless entities which analyse our browsing habits and make judgments about us.
These are the algorithms which over time can build a ‘pattern for life’ for each of us, collating and analysing every scrap of information from cell phone pings to credit card transactions to the casual web browsing which tells them so much about us. Information is power, and the appetite of the algorithms for more and more of our personal information is endless. And this in turn explains the near panic of Facebook when a user drops out or ceases to share or stops visiting. When we stop feeding our personal information - innocuous and harmless and bland as we think it to be - is when the alarm bells ring at Facebook.
This amassing of personal information from millions of people, on a global scale, has crept up on us almost unnoticed, and its potential to control our lives is only now being recognised for what it is. Artificial  intelligence has developed to a stage where Big Brother knows more about us than we do ourselves, and is doing so at an astounding pace. Facial analysis, for example, is now being used to track emotions and to determine our personality traits. The results are used to determine who gets called for a job interview, or in the case of a bail application, which suspect is likely to re-offend.
Meanwhile, concerns are being raised as to how social media might be manipulated by foreign agencies in order to influence domestic issues, such as the abortion referendum. Despite the existence of strict statutory controls on the funding of elections or referendums, the reality is that digital technology has made such safeguards futile. Any foreign vested interest can now target individual voters with carefully tailored, and often misleading messages, which will never be seen by anybody else.
There is a growing suspicion, for example, of Russian interference not only in the US elections, but also in the more recent election campaigns in France and Germany. The allegations can neither be confirmed or denied, such is the anonymity of social media. But what it does confirm is the inadequacy of our regulatory structure to keep up with the globalisation of social media, with its ability to reach whatever target it chooses.