My stalker and the Age of Data

Anila Dhami

Anila Dhami the broadcaster and journalist, discloses how her life has been horribly affected by the availability of information

19 September 2018 06:32

We are living in an age of profound paradox. Britain is divorcing itself from the European Union yet has never been so desperate for skilled workers. The United States has elected Donald Trump as President even as a mass movement of women and solidarity against sexism is mobilised. From the very core of our earth (split, according to many scientists) to society’s polarised structures and life on our streets, we witness potential and actual dualities and contradictions.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the digital sphere. What happens to the information we reveal about ourselves – wittingly or otherwise – and how is it put to use?

I was once stalked. First, I received messages on social media and emails in my inbox. Then, handwritten letters came to my workplace. And it all got too close to home when a letter dropped on my doormat.

I also felt, as many do after an incident, that my personal story had been reduced to a statistic.

Living with my family, I had a duty of care to other people as well as to myself, so I reported the incident and a restraining order was put on the person in question. And I removed my place of residence from the electoral system in an effort to reclaim my freedom: freedom from the effective captivity that had meant I feared leaving my own home, lest a man was waiting for me; freedom from the sudden sense of powerlessness over how my information was being used – and abused.

Yet these steps came with a price-tag: it will be harder for me to obtain a mortgage now, for instance. And I also felt, as many do after an incident, that my personal story had been reduced to a statistic.

What happened to me was not only shocking, (though I do not consider myself a victim of the situation); it made me think about the broader context in which this violation had happened. And, trying to step back from the personal to the general, I reflected.

The new General Data Protection Regulation has confronted us with the tensions of our existence in the online era. On the one hand, we love the extraordinary access that the internet gives us to services and to instant communication. On the other, we are only now beginning to grasp the uses to which that data may be put.

Under GDPR – as I’m sure you know by now – each company with which you have made contact is mandated by law to seek your explicit approval in order to stay in touch. Though these regulations were long-planned, their significance has been heightened by the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed by Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer, which stoked anxiety that social media was enabling millions of people’s privacy to be violated systematically by those seeking to micro-target propaganda and marketing.

The new General Data Protection Regulation has confronted us with the tensions of our existence in the online era.

But what does information-sharing really mean? And does opting in or out actually enhance our rights and autonomy? At one level, we are significantly more empowered than before. Officially, we can control who holds on to our data, and, in the process, have been made much more aware of what we are sharing and where. In theory at least, we now know who has these details and – possibly – how they will be used.

But the loopholes and contradictions persist. The thousands of people whose data was lost in the Windrush scandal were victims of a contrary trend: the risk that important information, crucial to the well-being of citizens and consumers, will be mislaid in an age of transformative change.

To compound the insult, the very same government that lost this data has also introduced a clause into its GDPR regulations that imposes new limits upon immigrants’ ability to access information that is held by the state about themselves. That access can now be denied if it would allegedly prejudice ‘effective immigration control’ – a criterion that is loose, to say the least.

I return to my own experience and what it compelled me to confront: we are being turned into statistics and data-sets, protected up to a point by regulation but still profoundly vulnerable. Information about us is still being aggregated to monitor our purchasing patterns, content consumption, and our ‘digital footprint’ (our traceable digital activities) to turn us from autonomous citizens into absolutely-trackable target consumers.

The driverless car, for instance, is not just a travel convenience: it is also a spectacular marketing opportunity. The permanent passenger has all the more time to see billboards and adverts outside the window, watch promotions inside the car, and add yet another item to his or her virtual basket. Ferried around in these high-tech vehicles, we will be one step closer to the entire world – literally – becoming a store.

Human nature is curious: it is odd to recall that Facebook usage reportedly rose after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Maybe it’s because people love that particular site. Maybe it’s because they feel they have more control and trust the new systems of accountability being put in place.

Or maybe – the most challenging possibility – it’s because we have become so used to giving data away that we have ceased to worry all that much about it.

Soon, we will share so much that our days will be numbered – in a virtual database assessing our lifestyles and likely mortality.

The border between humanity and cyberspace is now so porous that it barely exists. The credit card tapped on a sensor is an extension of our finger-tips. An iWatch touches the skin and instantly becomes a monitoring device for key indicators about personal health – potentially, of course, a huge advance for preventive medicine and public fitness, but also a limitless opportunity for those who seek to monetise health data.

I am sceptical that democratic regulation will keep up with technology. The pace of change is simply faster than legislators and ministers can respond to. Soon, we will share so much that our days will be numbered – in a virtual database assessing our lifestyles and likely mortality.

‘Skin-SIM’ technology – which enables continuous touch-tracking on the skin – is only the latest step towards the incremental integration of man and machine. As Mark O’Connell showed in his recent book To Be A Machine, the ‘transhumanist’ movement – the campaign to transcend the limits of human biology using technology – is already well advanced.

The present debate over information-sharing is a very early sign of what is to come. By force of habit, or indifference, we imagine that we still, essentially, control our data – or control it to a satisfactory degree – when, really, it will sit in a cloud controlling us and manipulating our behaviour.

I am not a Luddite: I don’t have an intrinsic problem with new technology and I celebrate its amazing dividends. But I think we should be clear-sighted about its consequences, too.

As we so recklessly share our data, we shed parts of ourselves, our dignity and our privacy, until we are reduced to a skeletal set of statistics and algorithms. Imagine a human captured in a pixelated moment but never able to touch the people in the rest of the picture: that is what big data does to us. It claims to connect, while actually isolating and redefining us. It is a fundamental challenge to the nature of human consciousness.

Having been through a personal incident involving privacy violation and data abuse, I am all the more determined not to give in to this process. There is so much more to us as human beings than digitised information.

So let us remain whole and connected. Let us not reduce ourselves, or one another, to statistics. Let us maintain/regain a collective consciousness – even as we protect our individual souls – proclaiming that, even in the Twentieth Century hurricane of data, consumerisation and technological revolution, a soul can never truly be sold. Mortal though we are, our days do not have to be numbered.