Data, Algorithms, and the Pursuit of Privacy

Analyzing the morality and ethics surrounding any major issue is something I always try to take into consideration because I believe this frame of mind fulfills a utilitarian objective. As an example, I’ve explored the concept of morality and whether it can be present in the context of a business monopoly on this very blog in a previous post. I write this because I’d like you, the reader, to know that I do understand the importance of valuing what is good and right in any debate. In his book, “We Are Data”, John Cheney-Lippold argues that “online we are made, read, interpreted, and intelligible according to data” (36). Every action we take online, whether that’s what we Google or what videos we watch and for how long, is all data that is computed and processed by the powers that be and it affects our online worlds without us necessarily being aware of it. This unlimited access to our online data is perceived as being a bad thing and from my understanding, most people want this to stop. I actually don’t share that opinion. I think in terms of costs vs benefits, algorithms are more of a good thing than they are bad. This belief may not be a popular one and for that, I’d like to offer a compromise.

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Personally, I think data-mining algorithms aren’t necessarily a bad thing and that as a whole, they have improved the lifestyles and standard of living for most people. I can only write from my own experience, but I believe algorithms have certainly helped me in my day-to-day activities. When I’m looking for a new thing to watch on Netflix, pretty much everything on the home screen is there based on my interests from past content I’ve viewed. In this example, algorithms have helped to quench my entertainment needs. I don’t have to browse a bunch of different catalogues or read the opinions of a popular critic to figure out what I should watch next. While those options are still there, I can also delve right into the next show or movie based on what Netflix recommends to me because it already knows what I’d be interested in. Furthermore, its because of algorithms that many hit movies and shows are created in the first place, such as House of Cards. Algorithms determined beforehand that a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey based on the BBC show of the same name would do extremely well…and it did. The same mechanism can be applied to a website like YouTube, where the site recommends videos to me based on things I’ve recently watched. Considering that over 300 hours of content is uploaded to YouTube every minute and that number is continually growing, I don’t think it would be possible to have as positive a YouTube experience without algorithms to help you sift through all that content to find the videos you’d enjoy.

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Algorithms also help me in finding the right products I’m interested in purchasing. If I’m in the market for a new pair of headphones, after a quick Google search into the matter, I get advertisements for a bunch of different headphones on other pages I’ll be viewing. While it can be argued that algorithms here aren’t exactly helping me find what I need and are instead promoting a capitalist mindset of buying buying and buying, I find that the use of algorithms and the promotion of that advertised content is more helpful than annoying. The fact is that advertisements are going to pop up regardless, so they may as well be ads of things you’d be interested in instead of otherwise.

These are some of the ways that immediately come to mind when I think about ways algorithms have helped me. While this isn’t so much a “personalized” browsing experience as it is because of profilization, which is defined as: “the intersections of categorical meeting that allow our data, but not necessarily us, to be ‘gendered,’ ‘raced,’ and ‘classed'” (87), the outcome is that my online experience will be unique. This is because our digital selves are a result of constructions of data that can be measured (45).

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Courtesy of Quarta Magazine

 

At this point I’d like to propose the compromise I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The heart of the debate surrounding data mining and algorithms is the issue of privacy, as summarized by Cheney-Lippold in his discussion about the right to being forgotten. If people are allowed the right to be forgotten, does that mean they also have the right to have a completely private online experience? What we search and watch and buy is data that can optionally be kept private from companies. I think users should have the choice of determining whether their data can be shared and to whom. Users should be considered the owners of their data because it is information about them and based on their experiences. Other entities shouldn’t necessarily have unfiltered access to that information without the user’s permission. Given this right, I personally would still allow companies to monitor my browsing experience because I think it helps me, but for those that don’t wish to divulge that information, I don’t think they should have to.

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