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The Algorithms Are Watching You.

Posted by: Tom Morris


My Dad refuses to register with online banking, “that’s how they get you” he argues. I try to tell him that regardless of whether he conducts his banking online or not, “they” have him and all of his information because data is constantly complied about us, in every aspect of our daily lives; and it’s not humans collecting the information, its algorithms

In the simplest terms, an algorithm is a step-by-step operation followed by a computer. Algorithms perform data processing, calculations and automated reasoning tasks. Nowadays, in our digital world algorithms are everywhere but some algorithms impact us and control us more than others.

Documents leaked by CIA contractor, Edward Snowden, revealed the extent of surveillance carried out by governments across the world. The US National Security Agency (NSA) and its international partners have been spying on millions of us through numerous surveillance programs operated by the Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance formed of the US, Canada, NZ, Australia and the UK. Together, their algorithms are collecting vast amounts of data on us from our phone calls, emails and webcam images to our locations. NSA claim however, that they are not actually collecting data and data is only considered collected once it has been received for use by the Department of Defence in the course of official duties; and by collected it means only when it has been processed into intelligible form. Interestingly, using this reasoning, you could say that a collector of books for instance, is not actually collecting the books until they have read them, before that the books are just being stored. But like the books, whether or not the information is being looked at doesn’t matter, the fact that it could be looked at means it is surveillance.

All of our online activity is monitored in one form or other and it’s not just by governments; corporation algorithms are getting in on the action too. Google’s algorithm, PageRank, has been essential to the company’s ongoing success. With a whopping 66.7% of the US market share, Google dominates so much that we rarely consider locating our information anywhere else. In order for Google to give us relevant and instantaneous results, PageRank needs to sort through a vast amount of online data at super speed.

Google’s algorithms are constantly collecting information on us, from our word usages to our search queries and using it to target their contextual advertising, GoogleAds, at us. Similar algorithms from sites and services like Amazon and Netflix monitor everything we view and add to our baskets, then suggest other related items to purchase. This could be considered helpful, but could also be creating a “filter bubble” where users only see information agreeable to them, meaning that they are shielded from information that disagrees with their viewpoint and thus isolating them in their own culture of ideological bubbles. Pariser suggests that this kind of behaviour could result in “information determinism” where our previous internet browsing determines our future browsing. Social media platforms are also feeding into this bubble by using algorithms to pre-select what you’re viewing based on the personal preferences it has built up for you, such as Facebook’s newsfeed. It takes into consideration number of comments, who posted it and the type of post e.g. video, photo and status.

Our physical movements are also monitored and recorded by algorithms. For example, airports are implementing computers with facial recognition algorithms to go through passport control, a job that used to be carried out by a human. Algorithms are used throughout airports because the sheer size and number of planes, luggage, passengers, flight staff etc is too complex for humans to manage and operate manually.

IBM has developed CRUSH (Criminal Reduction Utilizing Statistical History) a new technology known as predictive analysis to look at criminal movement. It uses algorithms, data aggregation and statistical analysis to evaluate incident patterns throughout a city and forecast crime hotspots meaning the police can allocate resources as necessary resulting in improved efficiency and safer communities. So far it has been trialled by Memphis’s police department and has successfully helped to reduce serious crime by over 30%, including a reduction of 15% on violent crime. Pilot projects are currently being run out across LA, Santa Cruz and Charleston.

These are just a few of the ways that we are constantly being watched and it will only continue and expand and evolve as our lives become increasingly digitalised. People are becoming more conscious of what happens to information collected on them, how it is stored and who can access it. There is an increasing sense of mistrust and anxiety; we are feeling exposed and vulnerable to manipulation from government and corporations. Latest data has shown that there were 198 million ad-blockers installed in 2015, demonstrating that we are sick of being targeted. We can’t avoid building up data in this day and age, unless you live in cave and then, that’s just unrealistic, so just be aware that  the algorithms are watching you and all that you do.

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