iGorithm: you are what you browse

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Our parents know a lot about us.

This knowledge they accumulate about us is the result of years and years of intensely living together, collecting information for so much time that they end up having a truly close idea of who we are and the things we like, in a such a way that at times they are able to foresee what our behavior will be in a certain circumstance.

And that is because they could not accumulate information about us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

In fact, not even the most efficient intelligence service in the 20th Century could gather information about individuals on that basis.

But large scale global data operators of the 21st Century can.

They can and they do.

They monitor, analyze, store, retrieve, exchange, receive, process, manipulate, experience.

If our parents managed to know so much about us having access to the extremely limited amount of information they had in comparison to what these undertakings currently do today, just imagine what this new industry wouldn’t be able to achieve in this field, using algorithms to extract from these processes a knowledge about us to which no one – not even us – has ever had access to in the history of mankind.

And this is only the beginning of this new story.

Explained with an almost irresponsible simplicity, an algorithm is a sequence of instructions about how to perform a certain activity. A detailed recipe of how to prepare Grandma’s cake, for example, is an algorithm. It cannot get clearer than this.

It is evident that the algorithms through which this enormous amount of digital data that is available today is processed is much more complicated than the recipe of Grandma’s cake. Still, the idea is perfectly suitable for illustrative purposes, the basic elements of an algorithm are all there.

Since this will be my subject of study for the following years, I decided to start 2016 asking one of these data operators to propose to say who I am. As I mostly use Google Chrome as my browser, it was to its tool that I posed the question, and the result was the following:

This snapshot of who I am (now?) reveals a bit more than what I rationally acknowledge as being my interests, like one in body and face lotions revealing that age is coming, and a drive to Rap and Hip-Hop which I’m not sure it’s true. Anyway, I’m browsing unconsciously while the algorithm is always there, working on the background. It must know what it is saying, in the end of the day.

Like this one, several other profiles about myself are traced along the day while I use social networks, browsers, public and private information systems, mobile apps, georeferencing systems, or even when I am not voluntarily or consciously accessing anything in particular, but my apps keep working on the background. Not to mention data exchange or crossing of information collected by different data operators, and the inferences and deductions that these actions allow. Everything, virtually everything I access, click, see, the time, how long I remain in which activity or application, where I normally start, where I go from there, where I end up, how often I return, who I connect to, everything is susceptible to collection, analysis and processing.

This is a rather simple, prosaic, elementary example, that not even by far represents the most advanced achievements in this domain, but it is sufficiently illustrative to contribute in the effort of trying to raise awareness in the various segments of society that already are and will growingly be affected by recent developments in these processes. Processes that already interfere with the behavior of persons, in the business environment, but essentially in the sphere or rights and obligations of individuals.

Why would this be of any importance in the context of life in society nowadays?

Simple.

Because you are what you browse.

The time for this debate has come.

Ok, there might be some exaggeration here, in an attempt to reach for your attention. But it is not that much. Also, do not feel over diminished. You are also love, anger, intuition, goodness, passion, tenderness, joy and all the other human, all too human things. Finally, it is obvious that at least in a near future there will still be offline life, or even life online with some hope for technical resources for anonymization, the hope of Tor-based applications. But what I mean is that with nearly 3 billion people connected in less than 20 years, and the next billion to be connected until 2020, it is impossible to deny that much and everyday more of who you are as a professional, as a friend, as a family member, as a consumer, as a taxpayer, as a citizen and as a person, much and everyday more of your world, and thus of you can very well have a digital representation.

And even if this representation is only an estimation, it is based on an amount of data which is much larger, richer, much more diverse and precise about yourself than, for example, what your parents had. And thanks to an unprecedented processing capacity, it is finally possible to intertwine much more complex sets of instructions, so that they are not only capable of following predetermined steps, but of analyzing if this sequence is actually the best solution to tackle a problem, of identifying points of failure in these sequences, of improving them, learning about them, learning again from the previous learning process, and in some cases even of deciding. Also, thanks to this increase in the availability of data in digitally processable format, and in the capacity of processing itself, due to the massification and individualization in the use of devices, it is finally possible to customize an algorithm so that it provides individualized, so to speak, tailored treatment. An iGorithm.

Ask Google.

As a matter of fact, algorithms are only one of the components in this technological scenario, and they are even more a techno than a logical element. What gives algorithms a much more enriched raw material than what it was available to former initiatives is the spread and massification of sensors everywhere, in addition to the quantity and diversity of the data that these sensors allow to be collected. Sensors, data and algorithms. This is the Trinity of the automation of processes.

In this very moment, the main forums and entities around the world that are involved with the dialogue between technology, policy and society are precisely discussing the nature of this issue. It is important to understand the mechanisms, the possibilities they open, what sort of change we’re witnessing, what impacts they bring, how we can project this first wave of impact to foresee nuances of the ones that are yet to come, in which aspects of our lives it reflects. As for the repercussions in the sphere of rights and obligations of persons, particularly, are we talking privacy? Definitely yes. Personal data? Almost all the time. But privacy and data protection alone do not cover all the range of what is necessary to understand this space. It is no longer all that it is about. Are we on the way to realize that we need a model of regulation or governance of algorithms? If we are, on which grounds? With which instruments? With what goals? Which metrics should we use? And if we are not, then how to accommodate this new element of pervasive automation in our legal orders, and make it coexist with the other interests we must preserve. Will we preserve all of them? If not, which will we establish as irreducible, and in which measure?

No desperation, or end-of-the-world mood. None of this is essentially bad. We have even started to benefit clearly, to some extent, from a variety of opportunities that these possibilities open. There are many good uses of these advancements, new opportunities of participation, of access to information and to knowledge, an enormous amount of new economic models and alternatives to human development which are precisely based on these new possibilities of automation that involve sophisticated algorithms, processing large sets of data which are collected by an almost infinite network of several kinds of sensors, which in their turn are spread everywhere. They accelerate, foresee, decide, simplify, suggest, interact, in summary, with the network society, in a movement that will not unwind – and it doesn’t have to – because at least for the time being, there are no doubts that the share of progress that these positive uses bring has been more than enough to justify the enthusiasm and the incentive for that development to go on.

But it is not, and it cannot be a blind enthusiasm. Technological development is not self-aware towards the good or the fair, and these are still basic values we cherish. The question is way more complex than global, large scale data operators would like it to be. Through their iGorithmic solutions, they are indeed in a position to interfere with the behavior of individuals and in the form of exercising citizenship as no other institution, arrangement or segment of society has ever been. They concentrate powers that have turned them into sorts of mediators of the public sphere, that perform an activity whose nature and scale have privatized at least some of the conditions to the exercise of certain fundamental freedoms. That is not easy to deal with.

Thus, concerns about the balance, prevention and exaggeration are not even by far activist whining, but legitimate worries, sensible tensions, responsible caution all which are essential in the task of searching for ways to keep enjoying the benefits of connectivity, automation and convergence, without losing sight of the effort to reduce negative differences, to manage unwanted consequences, to fight adverse effects and to build safe obstacles to the possibilities of harmful use of the alternatives that this environment offers.

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