Big Data And The Technology Of Social Control

The internet is headed for a “point of no return” where social control and dependence on addictive apps rise to unsustainable levels, says Geert Lovink, a professor at the Amsterdam University of Applied Science. Lovink, who helped create a precursor to the internet called the Digital City, claims in his new essay “Extinction Internet” that increasingly sophisticated methods of monitoring and control mean that “our supposed freedom of expression no longer actually exists.”

Whether or not the internet is beyond repair, the emergence of data-powered algorithms raises a number of important questions about data use and its effects on sociopolitical outcomes. Statistical models drawing on big data, which involves the amassing of massive amounts of information on human behavior, have the potential to widen the power gap between the masses of information producers and a select few information consumers, who control the means of data collection and interpretation.

Statistical thinking has wielded considerable political and economic power since the conception of statistics in modern Europe. During the 18th century, armed conflict drove states to gather information about their populations, natural resources, and industries. Collecting and drawing conclusions from such data increased state bureaucracies’ administrative efficiency because leaders were better able to allocate funds and personnel. States in possession of more statistical information were thereby offered a competitive advantage over states with less, according to Alain Desrosières in The Politics of Numbers. At the same time, mathematicians responsible for interpreting data and creating new quantitative methods achieved greater social status by applying their techniques to policy-relevant problems. Data and statistics’ origins as means of social control demonstrate deep-rooted motivations for those in power to collect and exploit vast amounts of data on ordinary members of the polity.

Just as early forms of data-driven analysis revolutionized state administration and furthered the interests of those in power in the past, big data and data-powered algorithms are transforming governance and entrenching plutocrats’ political positions today. This is evident in the case of contemporary China, where Beijing’s information control network has expanded to include a wide array of powerful institutions, censors, and computer algorithms all making domestic political conditions more favorable for the ruling Chinese Community Party. For example, the Great Firewall of China imposes barriers to online information access in order to divert attention from politically sensitive material. State censors have drawn on statistical data about internet activity to remove content, such as documentary footage highlighting Chinese cities’ serious problems with environmental pollution, which reflects negatively on the central government.

Beijing has also employed data-powered algorithms for mass surveillance and arbitrary detention of ordinary Chinese citizens. As Human Rights Watch explains, innovative technologies related to big data are central to the government’s consolidation of control over political and social life. The Integrated Joint Operations Platform (I.J.O.P.), a mobile app police and local officials use for mass surveillance, aggregates personal data and flags individuals deemed potentially threatening to social stability. Using the I.J.O.P. and other tools within China’s mass surveillance system, the government has forced nearly 13 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities residing in Xinjiang Province into “political education” camps since 2016. These examples demonstrate how big data strengthens information asymmetries between regular people, who generate data footprints, and political elites, who leverage their privileged access to emerging technologies to advance their interests.

Available evidence suggests that autocracies are not the only places where big data promises to undermine civil liberties and entrench the privileged’s position within social hierarchies. The misuse of data driving computational politics is observable even in established democracies such as the United States. Since there are relatively few legal restrictions on privacy, access, and information gathering related to big data, big tech companies and political campaigns are employing digital technologies at the expense of regular citizens. New York Times columnist Zeynep Tufekci found that data-powered algorithms targeting individuals harm civic discourse by supporting redlining efforts for local, state, and national elections.

The growing sophistication of statistical methods for the collection and manipulation of big data stands to widen the divide between ordinary producers and power brokers in charge of the data and information environments. Beijing’s “algorithms of repression” have fueled the rise of high-tech totalitarianism in China, while computational politics driven by big data in the United States threatens the integrity of America’s democratic system. To mitigate the dangers of big data without forcing the internet into extinction, policymakers should devise new domestic and international laws to govern the use of emerging technologies and make data-powered algorithms more transparent.