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Opinion | Emily Kumler

The fight for your data is on

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The collection of personal data is nothing new. Any man in ancient Rome who failed to show up for the census risked losing his citizenship. The census was, after all, a justifiable means of determining taxes and establishing the social hierarchy of the
population.

It’s harder to justify big data collection today, when there’s little transparency and even less accountability. In 2012, Reince Priebus, then chairman of the Republican National Convention, didn’t waste time throwing a pity party after Obama beat Romney in a campaign credited with gathering and using data in a way that made the National Security Association swoon. Priebus immediately authorized a $100 million dollar spend on improving the Republican Party’s data-gathering techniques, significantly upping its game, a move which helped put Donald Trump in the White House.

Last week, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gave a speech blasting the Democratic Party for its poor data gathering skills. “I inherit nothing from the Democratic Party. I mean, it was bankrupt . . . Its data was mediocre to poor, nonexistent, wrong,” Clinton said.

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The most disgusting part of this blame game is the unspoken assumption that we’ve accepted the use of scientific methods expressly designed to mislead us, to reinforce fears and alliances we already have, without any accountability, as a condition of our current political process.

There’s an entitlement that ignores an underlying right: my data is my property, not yours. How dare you use my property without my permission, without telling me, without showing me how you’re using it! You’ve been selling my property to entities that want to subversively convince me to behave in a way I might otherwise be opposed to? Are you compensating me for the sale of my property? Who’s in charge of enforcing our property laws, protecting my privacy, and making sure fraud isn’t an acceptable marketing tactic if our government is complicit in the scheme?

In Rome — around 450 BCE Rome — the two men responsible for gathering and compiling the personal data of its citizens were also appointed the moral police, or regimen morum. The men were beyond reproach, trusted implicitly to do what was right for the republic. The Romans made a connection between collecting personal data and morals. The gathering and compiling was a job for the most upstanding, moral men of the time. Our data, on the other hand, are for sale on the open market.

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We don’t know who is tracking us, monitoring our shopping habits, our search histories, and driving patterns. Nor do we know what they’re using our private information for, but I’m confident our virtual profiles are not being amassed by people known for their high morality.

The development of dark advertisements, which first monitor your activity and then use tailored, unattributable promotions to influence your behavior, deserves a new classification of subversive manipulation.

For example, a private surveillance program has monitored you and deduced your personality and psychological tendencies using an OCEAN score, which ranks you on five personal characteristic points. Unlike your SATs, still under lock and key, this score — which may conclude that you’re a manic shopper, or a narcotic, or paranoid — is for sale. In this case, you’ve been identified as a reluctant Clinton voter, so Trump or someone working against Clinton used a targeted ad the morning of the election informing you of long lines at your polls or terrible traffic on the way to the voting booth, all designed to make you stay home and not vote. There was no mention that the ad was connected to a specific candidate, or that the information was fake. Unlike television ads, which by law must reveal who paid for them, there are no such rules of engagement online.

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This was par for the course until it was hypothesized that Russia might be behind the manipulation. Last week, China announced it will crack down on multinational corporations’ data-gathering methods as a protective measure.

In Europe, where privacy is more valued than it is here, laws are popping up demanding transparency, so an individual has, at the least, the right to know who is tracking them. This spring in Austria, the government decided that the consumer pays for Google, Twitter, and Facebook by allowing the providers to sell their data. In Austria, that exchange is now considered a barter and will be taxed and regulated.

Back home, this fight is raging over your data, and no one has asked you what you want. It’s a massive competition between corporations and our government and our government and foreign governments. They’re frantically racing to scoop up as much information on you as they can, because they know whoever has the most data will be most likely to control you in the future. All the while, you don’t even have a seat at the table.

Our Republic emulated the Roman model; perhaps it’s time to reflect on why data collection was only entrusted to the same men charged with upholding the morals of their society.


Emily Kumler is an entrepreneur and investigative reporter focused on innovation. She is author of the forthcoming book “The Biggest Gamble.”

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