Sarah Spiekermann, Ph.D.   –   Business Informatics Professor and Thinker

Networks of Control –          The Book

  • 3. Oktober 2016, 15:20
  • MyBlog

Imagine you ask a friend to summarize for you "in a nutshell" what the rocky horror show was all about that he went to see. Your friend will probably have a hard time explaining the experience.

There are some things in life that are hard to grasp in words; they are unimaginable. Reading the book "Networks of Control" offers this kind of experience.

I first read Wolfie Christl’s detailed analysis of personal data markets’ workings and the abuse of our online data in 2014 (It was written in German and published with the Austrian Chamber of Labour). At the time I had been working on privacy and personal data markets for at least a decade. Nothing could really surprise or shock me. But when I read through Wolfie’s study I got physically disgusted. The reading experience was so heavy. And even though the study never mentioned the word "dignity"; by the time I finished reading it I had the impression that what we lose to personal data markets is exactly this: our personal dignity.

How we lose our dignity?

Marketers’ are building psycho-social and economic profiles about us now all the time. They offer us different prices for the same product depending on our purchase power and price sensitivity. They let us wait forever in call centres if we don’t make enough money with them. They don’t send catalogues to the poor; presuming that poor people cannot afford products anyway (or would not reliably pay for them). We are categorized into ‘segments’ that often carry ambiguous titles, such as "hedonist", "adventurer" or "preserver". We are analysed as to what triggers us most in our voting behaviour so that political parties can manipulate our votes. Banks are maximising the loan rates we have to pay them, depending on what our data traces tell them about our "risk" to pay them back. Some insurers are using our Facebook friends’ network to see whether we may be filing a fraudulent car accident with them. Others check whether we may fall sick and already take medication or anti-depressives? More important: Are we hanging out with people who are sick or unreliable? What does our social network and communications tell them about us? Or what kind of neighbourhood do we physically live in?

Increasingly, EVERYTHING we do online and offline and EVERYWHERE we go with our mobile phone (and more!) is collected, filmed, aggregated, processed and analysed. And unfortunately, the resulting information is then (typically) used against us. The focus of analysis is not how great we are, but how bad and risky we might be.

The pitfalls of media reporting on data abuse

The media has here and there picked up on one or another dubious data handling practice. For instance when it became public that one could deduce the likelihood of depression from one’s typing style. Or, when the supermarket Target sent pregnancy ads to a household before even the father of a future mother was informed about his daughter expecting a child.

While it is good that the media has continuously reported on such practices, this constant stream of reporting has also dulled us. We have started to be so fed up and bored by the bad news. We simply distrust online players now and simply give up on expecting anything ‘good’ or any privacy from the online environments we use. What is worse: Journalists are increasingly dulled and bored by the privacy subject: As one journalist wrote to me (who I respect and admire a lot!): "when I sift through your material much of what you say seems familiar already". This conclusion I fear is a dangerous one.

Frogs! Don’t miss the tipping point when the water starts to boil!

The unfortunate result of the general fatigue around data breaches or privacy protection is that we – as a public – risk to not be aware of the tipping point where our societies turn from free democracies to mass-surveyed crowds, in which each individual is individually manipulated and can be systematically persecuted or disadvantaged in some way. Remember the cartoon with the frogs who are sitting in warm water and don’t realize that they are being cooked? The boiling point is unfortunately pretty close.

The book "Networks of Control" reveals the full bandwidth of what is going on in personal data markets

The book "Networks of Control" is an opera on the tipping point of data abuse that we reach in the digital world. On 165 pages it accumulates 900 sources, cases and examples of what is really being done with our data, by whom, how and for what purposes. It reveals the tremendous scale of today’s data marketers who have started to co-operate between each other in "networks" that allow them to share online and offline data. These networks allow them to build up and maintain real-time profiles of billions of people; many of whom have not even used the Internet much. Each profile is not consisting of a few, but of thousands of data pieces that are harvested from all of us in real-time; a practice Aral Balkan has started to call "people farming".

Perhaps we need to think about a "Customer Life Time Risk" when we as people start doing business with a company online

A threatening trend is that many companies have joined the data business, which we have traditionally known and trusted for other businesses. An example is the company Oracle, which is strategically positioned for data analysis as it provides a large part of today’s databases. In recent years, Oracle acquired Datalogix (purchase data), BlueKai (a data management platform), AddThis (tracking 15 million websites) and Crosswise (cross-device matching of profiles). With the help of these acquisitions and other sources Oracle alone collects 3 billion profiles from 15 million websites and 700 million social messages daily. One of its specialties is the tracking of TV viewing habits. Oracle's "Identity Graph" matches dispersed profile information via email addresses, phone numbers and device IDs.

Oracle's "data directory" furthermore shows the network that gives the company a unique control over our digital identities, collaborating with companies such as Acxiom, comScore, Experian, MasterCard, TransUnion etc. As a side note it may be interesting to know that Oracle is also active in the field of human resources and employee monitoring. Must we expect that the company uses the data it has aggregated about us also for its job-market services? We don’t know from the book’s material. But the possibility alone is more than frightening leaving us with the question whether it is time for online customers to think about a "customer lifetime risk" as we engage with any company online.

Oracle is just one of hundreds of examples given in "Networks of Control"; a book that provides its readers, journalists, activists and the interested public with a unique resource to understand what is going on with our data in the online world. (Sarah Spiekermann, 3.9.2016)

Sarah Spiekermann, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2018 Sarah Spiekermann