- Your digital footprint is used to sell products and manipulate opinions
- Artist Ben Grosser creates projects that invite examination of our online activity
- Apps and extensions allow us to regain control and resist digital tracking
It’s midnight on the mean streets of 1980s Los Angeles. A man appears out of nowhere, lightning crackling around his buff, naked body. Disguised as a human, the artificially intelligent cyborg embarks on his ruthless mission to kill Sarah Connor and destroy humanity.
The Terminator is a brutal metaphor for a terrifying future when technology is no longer under our control — with dire consequences for humans.
But that merciless robotic intelligence was contained inside of an invincible metal body. What if the real artificial intelligence threat to humanity can't be crushed in a hydraulic press? What then?
Many of us already know — at least in the back of our minds — that our every online move is being tracked. We’re accustomed to our role as consumers and barely notice when an ad for those Bluetooth speakers we were browsing at home shows up on a webpage at work.
But as recent news stories have revealed, online data trails provide more information about our individual hopes, desires, and fears than we could ever have imagined.
Tracking companies combine emails, searches, likes, and tweets with our location, dating profiles, and shopping history to create a comprehensive digital portrait for every one of the over 280 million people online in the US.
Firms that practice psychometrics, such as Cambridge Analytica, sift through that enormous data pile and use algorithmic analysis not just to influence our spending habits but to exploit our emotions and manipulate our view of the world.
Some are even calling it “weaponized AI.”
Rage against the machine
“Some will suggest we stop using Facebook or Google if we don’t like how they work. That’s a nice idea,” says Benjamin Grosser, assistant professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But for many it’s not realistic. To be absent from Facebook is to opt out of networks and opportunities.”
Grosser created Go Rando, a browser extension that targets emotional profiling, turning Facebook’s ‘Like’ button into a random reaction generator that hides our true feelings from big data collectors.
It may not seem immediately subversive to click ‘Sad’ instead of ‘Love’ in response to a friend’s post about his new puppy, but every inaccurate data point disrupts the efficacy of psychometrics.
“I think the recent Brexit vote and US presidential election illustrate the stakes. In the case of Facebook and fake news, we’ve entrusted the mechanisms of democracy (e.g. information access and visibility) to algorithms designed primarily to keep us engaged rather than informed. Facebook’s motivation is profit, not democracy,” says Grosser.
We’ve entrusted the mechanisms of democracy to algorithms designed primarily to keep us engaged rather than informed. ~ Benjamin Grosser
One result of favoring engagement over information has been the spread of fake news. Facebook’s algorithms prioritize information that is highly shareable, even if it’s untrue.
“The result is a set of companies (Google, Facebook, etc.) that control our fundamental abilities to learn and communicate,” says Grosser. “Do we want such important aspects of life and liberty handled by a few private corporations?”
Fighting tech with tech
Like Grosser, many other artists and scientists are using creative approaches to protect humans from the effects of big data, autonomous supervision, and weaponized AI.
Adam Harvey, an artist and designer based in Berlin uses fashion to disrupt surveillance. His CV Dazzle combines hair and makeup strategies to block facial recognition software, while HyperFace is a camouflage that disrupts facial recognition by printing “false faces” on clothing.
Search engines like DuckDuckGo don’t collect personal information and don’t personalize search results — meaning that all users see identical results for the same search term, regardless of political affiliation or what big data suggests they ‘want’ to see.
Browser extensions like Ghostery and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Privacy Badger detect and block tracking technologies. If your personal style runs more towards obfuscation than secrecy, TrackMeNot protects your privacy by running randomized background search-queries to popular search engines, hiding your true activity in a sea of noise.
Another approach is more proactive: You can choose to actively view pages and media that are outside your comfort zone. EscapeYourBubble inserts curated posts into your Facebook feed from the opposing side of the political spectrum. FlipFeed will show you someone else’s Twitter feed instead of your own.
“I hope that my work and the work of others can poke a few holes in this overwhelming surge of change, encourage new considerations of what software does,” says Grosser, “and ultimately that it helps us understand software’s cultural, social, and political effects on society.”
The digital world is expanding at a breakneck rate, and it sometimes outpaces our ability to keep up. But we can all take a lesson from Sarah Connor. Humanity isn’t ready to give in yet. We can fight back against the rise of the machines. And we can win.