I was listening to a podcast interview with Nick Bostrom who was talking about his paper The Vulnerable World Hypothesis which looks at how we might avoid certain existential risks that might collapse civilization as we discover new technologies. It’s an interesting read, but not directly related to what I want to discuss in this post. He talks about one of the solutions to dealing with such risks is increases surveillance of people. I am sure that we are all uncomfortable with that, but I think he makes a pretty good argument about why it might be necessary given the possibility of inventing some technology that is easy to use by individuals and could easily lead to widespread destruction.
It was this uncomfortability that I was thinking about and I started to think about the reaction to the scandal that was exposed a number of years ago when it was found out that the NSA was collecting all this information on U.S. Citizens. I personally didn’t get concerned myself. I thought about the volume of data they are collecting and it seemed pretty clear to me that the man hours it would take to actually listen or read everyone’s private communications, while solving unemployment, would be an enormous task. It seems people actually feared that an NSA agent might show up at the door and tell their wife that the husband was having an affair or something. I don’t know. We definitely don’t like the idea of the government having our private information, and maybe that’s for good reason.
But enter social media. We have these platforms that we enter all sorts of personal information into. We talk about what we like and don’t like. We post pictures of where we are and where we’ve been. These companies collect all this information. We know that they have algorithms that influence what we read, who comes up on our feeds, and try to feed into our political views as opposed to presenting us with opposing arguments. We know that these platforms have been used by hackers and others entities to directly manipulate people. 100s of millions of people all over the world hand over all this information willingly.
My question is, is our government anti-trust disproportional to our trust of corporations? Is it even fair to compare the two, or is their an asymmetry here that I am missing? I mean arguably NSA surveillance could be uncovering terrorist plots that prevent loss of lives, does social media have benefits that outweigh its costs? Are we being hypocritical about the importance of privacy? Is it a difference of consent of information vs. non-consent of information? I mean I might argue that I am consenting by getting a Facebook account and posting things about myself, but they are certainly using my information in many ways I don’t expect or aren’t aware of.