During the financial crisis we learned that some banks are TBTF, Too Big To Fail. They’re so critical to the global economy, with assets and liabilities in so many places that they’re essential to our financial plumbing. Lehman’s bankruptcy proved this, rippling through the system and leading to millions of layoffs. Then, when officials failed to indict HSBC and other global banks for money-laundering violations, they were called TBTP – Too Big To Prosecute.
Now it seems that Facebook’s data-gathering algorithm is TCTM – Too Complicated To Manage. During his testimony last week, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that they didn’t know what sites we visit, but then, no, they actually do. He said we should be able to control what data Facebook has on us, but then, no, we actually can’t. Facebook has shadow profiles of people that have never visited their site, in the same way I have phone numbers of people I haven’t met in person – a plumber, a lawyer.
Our lives are dominated by online activities that require us to share personal information to access their services. Apple uses my location data to improve its services; Amazon knows all about what I read, listen to, or buy; and they all want my contact list. Recently a defendant in a civil case had his attorney recommended as People You May Know, even though they’ve only communicated through unconnected work emails. Creepy.
The tech giants are living off our data, using the information from our daily lives to run their predictive algorithms and put options in front of us just when we want to know what to eat, where to sleep, or if we need to get our oil changed. It like Goethe’s Faust, who sells his soul for unlimited knowledge and pleasure. Only we’ve sold our data to get news feeds and gardening supplies.
The devil from Faust. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia
This will not end well. Google faces antitrust charges in Europe. (Of course the Russians and Chinese have their own search engines, so they control that data. Wonder what Baidu knows?) The GPS on my phone still routinely sends me in the wrong direction. And Facebook will be hauled in front of Congress again. Like Captain Renault, I’m shocked.
It’s only a little funny to think of Santa mining an algorithm to figure out whether we’ve been naughty or nice. But he just wants to hand out presents, not sell our data. If the data giants keep snooping on us without our consent, their data-driven ad-based business may not turn out to be much of a gift.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”