By Kam Sandhu & Ranjan Balakumaran / Edited by Jude McArdle / Video by Clear Blue Films / Images by Peter William Rudd
Interview with Beverley Skeggs, May 2017
What does the phrase ‘All Data Is Credit Data’ mean?
Beverley Skeggs: “It means that every time you use any device whatsoever you’re sending signals about your behaviour that will be used in a model to predict what your credit rating will be, depending on who’s buying that data.”
“It’s being assessed for its value. For some people if its assessed as being high net worth individuals it will be put up for auction and traded. For others it will be traded and siloed in a low net worth category – putting adverts on their browsers for advertisers trying to buy particular data.”
How much do we know about data broker industry?
Beverley Skeggs: “Very very little. They are beyond regulation, they refused to appear before the US Senate or the Federal Commission. I’d say we know very very little about them. They are the real dark side of the net, because they are the people who are compiling, assessing and trading your data. If you are a child born now, they will be assessing your data right from the start. We have no idea what you’re being traded for or what your value is – the literal economic transaction we do not know. I would say they are the most powerful form of classification we now experience.”
When Sociologist Beverley Skeggs began the Values and Value: Facebook Interactions project in 2013, she aimed to paint a clearer picture of how Facebook was able to monitor and use information gathered about you, presumably for targeted advertising. A lot can be gleaned about us from pages we like, searches and even the emoticons we use. The public has also been rather passive in the face of experiments made on us without our permission like Facebook’s test of emotion control through feeds. Still, Skeggs found an even more evolved system than could be imagined.
‘We scraped data for six months. Initially we were looking at social interaction, what we realized through research is that they were tracking people all the time. We could see they were on people’s browser when people turned on their computer or their phone, and not on the platform.’
In December, American site Propublica revealed the dark web between Facebook and data brokers – naming 6 in particular. Facebook made its first deal with a data broker in 2012 – Datalogix, and this was no secret. However, the brokers Propublica turned up – Axciom, Epsilon, Experion, Oracle, WPP, Transunion – largely dealt with financial information.
And while Facebook does say users are able to access this third party information and contact the brokers themselves, the social media company has not always been upfront about its capabilities;
“When we began our project in 2013 they denied [tracking you offline] but the Belgian government took them to court and revealed through computer science departments that they were doing it. They said ‘yes okay we are tracking people when they are not on the platform’ but then [the Belgian government] lost on appeal the court case to stop them tracking people, because [Facebook] operate from Ireland and the Brussels government has no jurisdiction over Ireland. So again, outside regulation and accountability.’
There are data gatherers bigger and brasher than Facebook and they too evade governments and regulation. In 2014, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report calling for Transparency and Accountability from the industry. They found that these companies collect large amounts without consumer knowledge and share it with each other. Together they collect billions of data elements covering nearly every consumer and use this to make inferences about you ‘including politically sensitive ones.’
While the report raised positive opportunities for data collection it highlighted the risk to consumers which follow it, particularly in situations where consumers are unable to access their own data or correct it; data used to make inferences about our identity.
Access to the data is dependent on where you are. Laws in Germany and France are much tighter than the UK, which is better than the US.
JULIA ANGWIN: WE’RE ONE OF THE ONLY WESTERN NATIONS THAT DOESN’T HAVE A LAW TO SEE THE DATA COMMERCIAL DATA GATHERERS HAVE… COMMERCIAL DATA GATHERERS IN MOST COUNTRIES IN CANADA, IN EUROPE, IN THE UK, YOU CAN GO TO THEM AND SAY SHOW ME THE INFORMATION. AND IF IT’S WRONG YOU CAN CORRECT IT OR ASK FOR A CORRECTION AND THERE’S A DISPUTE PROCESS. BUT WE DON’T HAVE THAT HERE SO I TRIED TO FIND WHERE MY DATA WAS. I IDENTIFIED 200 DATA BROKERS, AND I WAS ONLY ABLE TO SEE MY FILES AT 13 OF THEM.
OF THOSE 13, WERE THEY ALL ACCURATE?
JULIA ANGWIN: NO…OF THE 13 THERE WERE PROBABLY ABOUT 5-6 THAT WERE VERY ACCURATE, THERE WERE ADDRESSES OF EVERYWHERE I EVER LIVED. ONE OF THEM HAD THE NUMBER ON MY DORM ROOM IN COLLEGE WHICH I HAD FORGOTTEN. AND EVERY PHONE NUMBER OF MY RELATIVES, AND ALL SORTS OF THINGS, THEY WERE ALL VERY ACCURATE. THEN THERE WAS ANOTHER CATEGORY THOUGH, OF PEOPLE WHO BASICALLY PEGGED ME BECAUSE I LIVED IN HARLEM, MANHATTAN AS A LOW INCOME, SINGLE MOTHER WITH VERY LOW EDUCATION LEVELS AND THAT’S NOT TRUE.
But it’s not all about a sharing economy amongst the brokers. Bubbling away in increasing headlines and coverage in the financial pages is the fight over patents and algorithms, sometimes only to prevent competition from gaining them. This includes Facebook:
“Facebook have the most phenomenal experimental capacity. If you look at their research site you can see they look at drones, face recognition software, semantic software for your tone of voice and they operate as a proper capitalist monopoly company. They buy anything that’s in competition with them and they patent everything they possibly can so nobody can use the data, only they can. They have patented your personal data and you don’t own it anymore.”
Facebook is able to access new kinds of information about us. Images, semantics, friends and networks, what we like. This enables new kinds of decision making, and when married with financial and personal details like name, address etc, this becomes altogether a new kind of economic assessment. For over two years now credit analysers have been looking at how to convert this information into ratings information. Will Lansing, Chief Executive of FICO, said in 2015 ‘If you look at how many times a person says ‘wasted’ in their profile, it has some value in predicting whether they’re going to repay their debt. It’s not much but it’s more than zero.’
So is Facebook becoming a credit rating agency?
“Yes. It’s involved in Fintech which is trying to disrupt the traditional banks to offer financial services, which is always very lucrative as we know the money is to be made from fees for financial services. So it will be offering lots of financial services.
“It designed messenger to enable peer to peer financial transactions which will, if you’re doing it from your phone immediately, be much easier than going into a bank and applying for a loan.
“What’s really significant is that Facebook, unlike a bank, knows all about you. They know your friends, they know your behaviour they can predict what you’re likely to do in the future, so they’ll be making assessments of your credit rating on that basis. They just took out a patent a month ago on making collecting data on your social network legal to add to their ratings that they have about you.
“If you think that one of the Facebook founders Peter Thiel set up Paypal to evade financial regulations and made millions as a result. So they have always been into financial regulations. Fin Tech companies they will use their tech to really challenge traditional banks.
Has the UK government lead us in this direction?
‘The Snoopers Charter has basically just sold us down the river. They can do whatever they like now. What you’ve got to think is privacy is now an economic issue. The companies that are tracking you, are doing it for economic reasons. While the government says it’s for security.’
The nature of technological advancement has far outstripped protections in law and ethics, but this lag has been exploited by the tech industry and governments alike as an increasingly close relationship sees the entrance of powers by the coercion and security rhetoric of the state, to the economic benefit of the industry.
Vivek Wadhwa, Indian Entrepeneur and one of the Global 100 thinkers (2012, Foreign Policy Magazine) described in his video ‘The Future is Bright, if we are Cautious’ the upending of companies and life as we know it in the next thirty years as advancement continues, making it possible ‘for us to solve the grand challenges of humanity’, including endless energy, food, and extended healthy life spans.
It holds great opportunity. Potentials in medicine from data sharing mean early detection, prevention and solutions for rare conditions not possible in the world before. 3D Printing and increased personal data technology will enable positive steps in information, education and living standards.
But Wadhwa is also concerned with the ‘dark side of technology.’ In his book ‘The Driver in the Driverless Car’ he compounds the duality we face where the next few years will decide whether technology creates the utopia of less work, greater autonomy and freedom or a hoarding of innovation and equity leading to joblessness, loss of privacy and alienation. With tech companies working alongside and inside of governments to deplete privacy through function creep, protections are low from the former and more harrowing of Wadhwa’s visions.
The lag exists in culture too. Tech companies, including social media platforms such as Facebook, can present themselves as inherently neutral and innovative. Advancements and conveniency are viewed as inherently positive, even where the new players – such as Uber – circumvent worker rights, regulation (see lobbying relationship with David Cameron) and discrimination at the highest levels. Uber too is doing what it can to extend its data capture, illegally and without the notification of its users.
The intent of government is important. Other countries have successfully rolled out ID cards with some biometric standards, like Sweden (which uses fingerprints and photographs). As Ramanthan says ‘The state can do good if it feels like it, but it doesn’t have to if it doesn’t.’ Sweden’s ID card remains voluntary. Meanwhile in the UK, real time online surveillance has been added to a proposed draft of the IP Bill this month.
At the same time, 17 of the ‘leading FinTech firms’ agreed to join UK FinTech Financial Crime Exchange, to tackle money laundering and corruption – professing technology as the solution to the problems of the current economic system, despite its more secretive record until now.
With Skeggs’ research newly released, and the Supreme Court to hear a challenge to the mandatory criteria of UID on May 17th, these stories create a context for the ‘revolution’ and function creep taking place in healthcare.
Read more about the Trading Faces project and view all of our reports and updates at: http://realmedia.press/trading-faces/