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Big Data Tech is Threatening Democracy
After watching the Black Mirror episode "Nosedive" two years ago, I was shocked at how it showed an alternate world where people rate each other, and the rating determines one’s social-economic status. Lacie, the leading actress, was denied access to a flight because her score was 0.02 lower than the minimum standard. However, surprisingly, this system became a reality in China today.
Deemed the “social credit system”, it gives each citizen a score between 350 and 1000 based on their behavioral data. Although we do not know how extensive and effective the system is, the government has completed a detailed outline of it and begun to implement it in several cities. Unlike any previous surveillance system, the social credit system will score not only citizens’ financial creditworthiness, but also social and political behavior. The scoring process will be done automatically: computers will analyze people’s behavioral data captured by surveillance cameras and rate people. People with higher scores will have privileges such as getting promotions at work easily, whereas those with lower score may not be eligible to buy flight tickets—nearly the same as the Black Mirror story.
Three decades earlier, Francis Fukuyama predicted that after the collapse of the USSR, the last challenge to the liberal world order was eliminated, and democracy would thrive and last permanently. His prediction seemed right until the advent of the Internet and big data analysis. As more people access the Internet now, third parties can collect and control data from a much larger population. Aided by big data analysis techniques, governments can supervise and even alter citizens’ social and political preferences, constituting a big threat to democracy.
China’s social credit system is not the only case around the globe. In India, the government also uses Big Data for political interests. In 2009, the Indian government created Aadhaar, a biometric identification system. Users record their eye scans and fingerprints and store personal data in the system. In return, they receive a 12-digit Aadhaar number used in interactions with the state. Users also need to transfer money to their Aadhaar cards to pay for social services and taxes. With this system, the government collects taxes and checks corruption more effectively.
The previous government promised this system to be voluntary, but Modi’s administration has made it mandatory. It has become the prerequisite of paying taxes, booking tickets, seeking jobs, etc., and over 99% of Indian adults are enrolled. Simultaneously, the government works to link Aadhaar with public and private transactions. This arouses the suspicion that the government is constructing a digital surveillance state. Because of insufficient privacy laws, the personal data in Aadhaar, as well as datasets linked to Aadhaar from companies, will enable the government to trace citizens’ private life and analyze their behaviors with Big Data technology.
The surveillance on Indian people could diminish citizens’ autonomy of decision making: individuals may self-censor their speech and behavior in fear of being identified as political dissidents. Given that Modi’s administration brutally suppresses political dissidents, citizens will become more cautious under Aadhaar system in order not to be categorized as dissidents. This will enlarge the imbalanced power between the Indian government and citizens, eroding Indian democracy.
Big Data not only threatens democracy enabling massive surveillance but also by weakening the legitimacy of political elections. In the 2016 US election, Trump’s team was alleged to cooperate with Cambridge Analytica, a company developing a model to create personal profiles (including predicted vote) with citizens’ data. Based on these profiles, the company used Big Data techniques and AI to accurately predict how to transform Hillary supporters into Trump’s. Finally, on Facebook, Hillary supporters in key constituencies received personalized messages or fake news that played on their desires and biases. The online intervention was believed to be a key factor beneath Trump’s victory. As Big Data technology develops, it is likely that more politicians will manipulate it to alter election results.
Even worse, foreign governments can manipulate Big Data to weaken other states’ legitimacy and democracy. Russia reportedly paid thousands of people to create and spread fake anti-Hillary contents online. Usually, social media feeds only display the contents consistent with a users’ beliefs, and this selection process is done entirely by Big Data analysis. In this case, the Russians skilfully used Big Data: They wrote anti-Hillary posts in ways that matched most Hillary supporters’ preferences (e.g. legal justice). Thus, these posts constantly showed up and potentially convinced people not to vote for Hillary. The Russian interference on the presidential election would be a stigma on American democracy and therefore reduce the soft power of the US.
In fact, in the face of the global backlash of democracy, many people suggest Big Data as a cure, as long as politicians use it properly. One key application of Big Data is crowdsourcing. The British government started to use crowdsourcing to gather public opinion in 1800s. With Big Data, governments can now analyze a larger amount of data than ever before, expanding the scale of crowdsourcing.
Through crowdsourcing, citizens are invited to share their opinions on events traditionally beyond their influence ranging from urban planning to government budgets. Many American cities like Chicago crowdsource opinions on budget distribution annually. In 2010, Iceland invited citizens to comment on constitutional drafts. Every latest draft was published online for comments, and the Parliament would revise the draft after analyzing the comments, until the draft was finalized. These are good examples how Big Data consolidates democracy.
Looking forward, we urgently need a new contract between tech companies, governments, and citizens. Citizens should be the ultimate authority in determining how their data are used. Tech companies (especially social media and Big Data companies) should resist the governmental use of their data for political purposes. Governments, instead of supervising people and predicting their behavior with Big Data, should work to expand the access to the Internet and get citizens involved in crowdsourcing.
Will Big Data continue to threaten our democracy? That depends on whether the triple-dimension contract can hold governments and companies accountable and protect people’s civil rights. So, let us sit together and draft the contract first.