Database of ruin

December 24, 2019


The writer is a development and technology policy consultant.
The writer is a development and technology policy consultant.

IN The Anarchy, William Dalrymple describes how one of the world’s greatest empires fell prey to a cruel and greedy corporation. The idea that ‘the British’ conquered India obscures the fact that it was a private for-profit company, dangerously unregulated and highly militarised, that seized the subcontinent. Dalrymple believes “no contemporary corporation could get away with duplicating the violence and sheer military might of the East India Company”.

Dalrymple’s point that “neither Facebook nor Shell possesses regiments of infantry” is undeniable, but technology corporations now possess a different kind of power: the ability to control narratives, manipulate information, influence and alter people’s thoughts and behaviours. Fuelled by the rise of digital technologies, corporations have become more powerful and dangerous than ever before. These platforms enable ever more efficient and scalable physical and psychological violence. This is the new military-digital complex.

Some typical examples: a corporation uses millions of its users’ photos without their consent to develop facial recognition technology to sell to police departments and state agencies; the world’s largest search engine agrees to censor its search results to appease an authoritarian regime; a political consultancy uses a large technology platform to illegally mine data and manipulate elections; a social media company sends cryptic warnings to journalists and activists for posting content that may offend an ‘authorised entity’.

Big Tech’s monopoly allows for more censorship and surveillance.

The internet has a geography; the origin, location and ownership of infrastructure, data, servers and information matter. Who owns and controls infrastructure and computing power; who controls information and sets the agenda for what may or may not be discussed; who is allowed to access and participate in digital spaces — these questions are essential to any democracy.

Equitable access to free and safe online spaces is a basic requirement for a functioning democracy but is under attack the world over. The concentration of digital space in the hands of a few large corporations allows for more effective censorship, surveillance and psychological operations.

In Pakistan, increased digital literacy and access to smartphones and the internet has coincided with increasing surveillance of online spaces. Social media platforms are heavily monitored, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority arbitrarily blocks access to websites and contents, and laws such as the infamous Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, allow for unprecedented surveillance and censorship.

It is only getting worse. Coda revealed that Pakistan has acquired the services of a Canadian company to build a nationwide “web monitoring system ... to monitor communications, measure and record traffic, and call data”. More recently, Freedom House revealed Pakistan’s abysmal ranking in internet freedom has only worsened, and Facebook revealed Pakistan to be a global leader in censorship requests.

In a previous op-ed, I wrote on the systematic militarisation of social media in Pakistan through bot and human-run accounts, which are employed to run coordinated surveillance, disinformation and trolling campaigns. Women are often the worst targeted, with blackmail, verbal abuse, rape threats and leaking of personal photos and videos being the preferred weapons.

Anyone who interacts with digital technology generates large amounts of data. This includes not just what one purposefully uploads or posts, but also data such as browsing history, location and anything a digital virtual assistant might pick up on. There is currently no foolproof way for a user to access all of their personal data or even to know what data exists on them — although some countries’ data protection laws theoretically allow for it — because there is no way of comprehensively knowing which companies or authorities have mined, saved and/or sold your data.

This is what Paul Ohm at Georgetown University calls the “database of ruin” — technology companies have collected massive data on their users (with or without their consent), paving the way for a future “littered with lives ruined by the exploitation of data assembled for profit”. Every tweet, every comment, every private message, every photo or video ever shared on any online platform can potentially be accessed and used against you.

Surveillance and the threat of retaliation greatly reduce the quality of online debate and public engagement. Corporations rarely, if ever, prioritise user rights over profits. As Dalrymple states, Facebook indeed does not possess regiments of infantry. But the monopoly power of a few technology platforms — the Big Tech — and their complicity in the seizing and weaponising of online spaces, may be more dangerous than anything that came before.

The writer is a development and technology policy consultant.

Published in Dawn, December 24th, 2019