On Algorithms and Manipulation

Few years ago there was a mass-shooting in San Bernardino. FBI seized the phone of one of the shooters and asked Apple to decrypt it. Apple refused citing the protection of its users not matter what. Ask any person on the street or among your friends who is right here, and the would most likely side with the FBI. After all, a person who massacred 14 people by definition cannot have the right to privacy.

Let’s take another example: a group of friends plan a heist and share the details via IM (instant messaging) app. Eventually they get caught, and the FBI asks the IM company to hand over the chat history of these people, or hand them over the encryption keys. What would you do? Again, for the majority of responders the answer is pretty clear: open up the chats, and hand them over to the government.

And one last example: one person falls in love with another one. At first they talk over the Internet, discuss their future plans, share photos. Police arrests both of them, seizes their computers and phones. What did they do wrong? They’re both of the same sex. And sadly, majority of the countries in the world do still dictate who you should have sex with, what food you should consume, and what can you do with your body. As recent as the last year (2020), a new legislation in Poland and Russia tried to heavily limit or outright ban the abortion, which by the way is still illegal in many countries and some states in US.

The problem gets even more blurry when you consider political opinion, and what precedent governments can use in order to prosecute people they deem are a threat to their law and order. I wanted to write about algorithms that Facebook, Google, and other large tech companies use. How can this be related to privacy and prosecuting criminals? Showing personalized ads doesn’t harm you, and having targeted advertising might be actually useful for people. I will get to this in a bit, but before let me also mention one Facebook experiment.

In 2014 it became known that Facebook’s data science team conducted an experiment where they manipulated the emotions of 689003 of their users. People became outraged because they were being manipulated without giving their consent. In 7 years that have passed since the experiment, their data science team has grown in size and improtance. And most likely Facebook has learned to stay more quite about conducting controversial experiments. And so did Google, Amazon, and many other companies that gather a lot of data about their users. The advertising industry has done a huge leap in the past 20 years from a simple department to having PhD students and whole university departments researching how to make us do what we are told. These days this branch of science is called neuromarketing.

Today these companies have amassed so much information about us that now they know better who we are than we do. They get the subtle clues and can tell me whether you have a depression, if you’re planning to quit your job, or even commit suicide. These companies can learn about your sexual orientation much earlier than you yourself figure this out. Now let’s consider a hypothetical situation where Google uses their powerful algorithm to show your ads with the human models of your sex. Because you’re gay (even though you don’t know it yet), you’re more likely to buy these brands when they’re advertised not by beautiful women, but instead by beautiful men. If we take this not so hypothetical example further, what if you were outright advertised gay products while browsing the Internet even though you haven’t previously visited any of the website with that content. And with some countries pushing hard to sniff their people’s Internet traffic one way or another, the government might learn about your sexual orientation simply by watching which products you are advertised. Now remember that in some countries same-sex relationship is outright forbidden and can lead to death penalty.

One might say that this is not possible, and all of this is hypothetical. And I do hope it is. But whenever people say they have nothing to hide, or that criminals do not have any rights, I become angry. Because like in Nazi Germany, it’s not going to be long before all of the political parties are outlawed and you become a criminal too.