The Internet Society’s Nuclear Option

In class, we have discussed the importance of privacy and the risks of surveillance in an era of increasingly sophisticated behavior recording, prediction, and manipulation. As a society, we are becoming increasingly entrenched in a burgeoning ecosystem of surveillance capitalism.

Many agree that a fundamental redirect is in order; the broadly unregulated, widespread capture of behavioral data should be restricted or even prohibited worldwide. Ideally, we might even eliminate all previously collected behavioral information

However, as I reflect upon the current state of the Internet Society, I cannot ignore the nonzero possibility that the war to preserve the privacy of behavioral data and prevent sophisticated behavioral influence has already been lost.

Within Google’s servers alone lay my proudest academic works, intimate secrets from my darkest moments, my tasks for the day, my plans for the year, a scatterplot of my social footprint, an extensive record of my movements, and contact information for every human I know. Facebook, Amazon, and Bank of America hold powerful data profiles of me as well. Add to that datasets compiled by the U.S. government and other state entities.

I write this as a relatively well informed, well educated, and concerned citizen. My dismal tale of ignorant surrender and subsequent inaction is all too common. Around the globe various corporate and government entities hold massive troves of personal information regarding billions of humans.

Unfortunately, the deletion of this behavioral data strikes me as a functional impossibility. Such valuable digital information will not be destroyed by force. Considering the power of the parties who hold it and the existential threat that deletion would present, they will not cooperate either. We must also consider the general lack of support for such action at this time and the logistical difficulties inherent in such an effort. Accordingly, I assume that the behavioral data that has been collected will remain indefinitely.

Next, I consider the possibility that we can limit the capture of behavioral data to its present state.

Even if I completely unplug today, I have already leaked extensive information. The power of this data in combination with present-day tools is evident in societal changes as fundamental as declining sex drive and the swaying of national elections.

With such immense value, behavioral-data-driven tools will continue to advance even in the absence of new data collection.

The best-case scenario appears to be an incremental slowdown of behavioral data collection over several years with significant dissent by parties that are unmoved by widespread concern and have sufficient leverage to withstand external pressures (e.g. Communist Party of China).

Considering these dynamics, I am concerned that a data-collection slowdown may be insufficient to eliminate threats of social control. Accordingly, it seems prudent to consider an alternate plan of action in case of continued progression into a surveillance-centric ecosystem.

Society’s current path is one in which the Parasite with the Mind of God is under construction…or simply undergoing perpetual renovations. Theorists such as Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom believe that society is en route to creating superintelligent artificial intelligence, a digital system that is capable of outperforming humanity in all intellectual endeavors. Such a machine strikes me as the natural conclusion of a society in a feedback loop of data capture for observation, analysis, and influence.

Bostrom further claims that superintelligent A.I. “is the last invention that man need ever make” as it may execute any further self-enhancements and will be sufficiently intelligent to thwart attempts at intervention.

If we continue on this path, we must decide who should be in control of this ultimate project and what procedures will guide the decision-making process.

At present, the frontrunners in the race for big data and sophisticated machine learning seem to be Big Tech and national governments. Neither group embodies the goals or procedures that I want guiding such a project of ultimate importance.

Both are shrouded in secrecy and exist within competitive spaces that cultivate racing behavior. “Move fast and break stuff.” “It’s better to ask for forgiveness that to request permission.” As these tools become more powerful and the societal impact more drastic, such behavior becomes increasingly dangerous.

To avoid a future shaped by today’s likely candidates and their inherent flaws, I advocate the establishment of a socialized multinational AI research project that is subject to public input and oversight and is less constrained by capitalist and political forces. A unified global public project strikes me as the best opportunity to cultivate sufficient resources to surpass the efforts of Big Tech and national governments.

Even if such a project were initiated imminently, the hour is late and the competition is fierce. Thus, drastic action must be considered. Legislation granting data portability rights could be extremely helpful, allowing individuals to obtain their personal data from service providers and, in turn, share that information with the socialized project. Similarly, legislation that protects adversarial interoperability in the software industry could catalyze transitions away from predatory products upon which the public has become dependent. If necessary to achieve competitive dominance, further data collection on a consensual basis may be pursued.

While the collection and processing of behavioral information is inherently risky, an international socialized model may greatly reduce the risks of our present private and national models.

I do not advocate any surrender in the fight for privacy. I simply support the development of contingency plans. An arms race is afoot in both the private and public sector with many convinced that surveillance is the key to future dominance. In humanity’s failure to denuclearize, I see an inability of modern society to relinquish powerful tools of control and I fear that digital surveillance may be similarly destined to proliferate.