How Destructive Corporate Practices Necessitate Groups like HPC Support
There are many changes that a reader of this post could make that I would make me count writing this piece a successful use of time. Switching to Duck Duck Go, migrating away from Gmail, writing to a congressperson about privacy concerns, spreading the facts, are among a few of the outcomes I’d like.
It is quite simply a fact that Google has accumulated too much power without a policy in place to regulate it. The technological revolution that started in the early ’80s and was catalyzed by the Internet has happened much too quickly for Congress to keep up. Do we need to amend the constitution to account for changes in the fundamental way we live our lives? Is Google (and Facebook) tricking the public into thinking that privacy is nothing to worry about? Do items like fake news and content published on social media sites really fall under the jurisdiction of those same sites, and so the responsibility falls to Facebook and Google to clean up the messes they are making by allowing conspiracy theory to proliferate?
I contend the answer to all three of these questions is yes. Yes, we need a constitutional revolution to account for modern day life. Yes, the public has no idea what they are in for if they do not fight for the fundamental right of privacy. And yes, huge tech corporations are responsible for some amount of the malicious behavior that has made its way from their platforms through politics and into daily life.
Let me present the reader with a couple of facts that I hope will heighten worry and promote action. Google runs on about 75% of the websites most trafficked on the internet. Most of what they are doing is running what is called Google Analytica. This program serves as a tool for data collection. It helps Google (and Facebook has a similar program) to build an in-depth profile of each individual that can be sold to advertising agencies. But, of course, the power is not just in the individual but in the collective. It is not individual data that Google cares about but the aggregation of millions of data points. When they can see trends that gather across whole communities they can profit off of the information.
Sure, it is true that some of these ways are helpful. Whenever we go onto new sites that require a login to perform helpful activities, Google and Facebook both appear as easy ways to do a one-click sign in, instead of spending the 10 minutes to enter all of our information. But it is hard for most of us to see that this helpful activity is another way for Google and Facebook to track you. Because we use this sign-in tool, and sometimes it is the only option, both companies can now track what we do even off of their sites. Due to the fact that this is not a source of anxiety, a red herring that a totalitarian state may be coming, the public seems woefully blind to its own potential downfall.
Just imagine a case of profitable behavior that Google is incentivized to perform selling your information without your consent in a way that could cost you your life. Google is able to track your mouse as it passes over their site. In recording that data, they could aggregate it and list it against all known users who have Parkinson’s disease. This sickness would show itself online by slower and shakier than usual mouse control. With vast amounts of data at their disposal, Google could average extremely high predictive values as to if you have Parkinson’s. Here comes the part that does violence to commonly held societal goals.
Google is incentivized to sell this information to your insurance company that could result in a spike in insurance costs, or the insurance company dropping you as a client. There are currently no laws in place that unilaterally prohibit this type of behavior. No laws exist that require Google to compensate you for the information or to even tell you that you likely have Parkinson’s disease. Do not be fooled by the admittedly fantastic productivity boost these companies offer; you are the product, not the consumer.
I am no Luddite advocating a return to the often overly romanticized times of hunter-gatherers or cabins in the woods. I am a staunch supporter of coding, data analysis, and the integration of life with technology. We need supportive online communities, not corrosive ones. We need a tool for the people, not a tool used on the people. We need our lives to be protected by the institutions that have a duty to serve us.
All of this is to say that information is the skeleton key in the war of ideas. It unlocks avenue and ways of thinking that were hereunto previously locked away. One way to inform ourselves is to learn about the various methods these companies use to perform analysis on such large data. Highly parallel computing is one of these tools. This group, under the enlightening leadership of Asya Shklyar, teaches the fundamental knowledge of the computing world. From the terminology to various hands-on experiments my time at the HPC group, though currently, brief, has helped me create more informed opinions on a variety of topics.
I do not wish to say that in the HPC group we focus on Google or Facebook or any other companies policies explicitly. Rather, you get a taste of what is going on in a world that is crucially important to be an informed citizen in this day and age. Facts such as the critical path are of paramount importance in determining the runtime of a program, or that Moore’s Law predicts that the number of cores per processor will double every 18 – 24 months give the most utility to programmers, data scientists, and technicians. But they offer the layperson an avenue to more accurate predictions and knowledge of the capabilities she has. Knowledge is power is how the old saying goes. At the HPC support group, Asya and our team empower a generation of students from academic disciplines across the college.
Are You Ready? Here Is All the Data Google Has on You by Dylan Curran
Google Just Got Some Record-Breaking Bad News by Maya Kosoff
Waking Up with Sam Harris #152 – The Trouble with Facebook
The Knowledge Project with Shane Parish – Popping the Filter Bubble
By Malcolm Yeary
Editors Comment: Thank you, Malcolm, for such an inspiring article. More students in non-technical fields need to know how technology works, to make informed decisions and participate in policy-making. We have our work cut out for us!