By James Fitzpatrick
Do you feel in control of your online information? More companies have access to your previously-private information than you could imagine, this is through the openness of social media and other means. Wendy Wong, author of “We, the Data: Human Rights in the Digital Age,” presents this situation in both a positive and negative light. During her discussion in the Dodd Center on Tuesday, Oct. 3, she elaborated on what it means to be a stakeholder in one’s own data, but also the conglomerate nature of data, considering how small bits of information are pooled together to create archetypes of people. As the title alludes to, “you” are data.
According to Wong’s website, she obtained her Ph.D. from the University of San Diego San Diego in 2008; 15 years later, she has adapted her political studies for the information age, the culmination of it all being her book. Holding much prestige in Canada and the human rights field at large, her sense of urgency is not to be taken lightly.
She begins the discussion by drawing a commonality between Shaquille O’Neal, “Shark Tank” and Amazon. They all played major roles in getting the Ring doorbell onto homes —private property mind you — across the nation, so much so that the lines between consensual and non-consensual recordings of people are blurring. The distinction is almost arbitrary, but it is more important now than ever as artificial intelligence technology uses this menial data tracked by smart technology to know more about you than you’re willing to share. She recognizes how mass data-analysis helped to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. She then contrasts this by mentioning, in the same token, insurance companies treat beneficiaries differently, for better or for worse, all based on data. Wong emphasizes the reliance of AI on its human creators. It attempts to mirror humanity, and without people to moderate it, AI would hold no meaning.
“Rather than sitting back and being subject to data collectors’ policies on how they make, store, and analyze data about us, we need to start directing the conversation to one where we make our future in data embedded in human rights,” Wong said.
No one could have predicted the explosive beast that is smart technology; certainly not the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights back in 1948. The biggest hindsight to be made now from them is that “human life is physical, but it is also digital,” as Wong concisely states. She argues that human rights activism following World War II relates to the physical subjugation of people, as we saw the limits of suffering pushed by the antagonists of that war. Now, we must look beyond physicality in terms of human rights, such as when people die. As she later mentions, data of the deceased may or may not be used after someone dies or even while they’re alive. It’s big tech’s ability that matters.
Big tech, as it’s often referred to as, includes the multimedia conglomerates of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Meta. The latter corporation, as she mentions, reaches nearly 4 billion people in current times. That is half the world’s population they collect data on, which they use for a variety of purposes. It’s a pretty good sample size, isn’t it? Wong doesn’t argue for a revolt against big tech, rather she states how our roles as data stakeholders gives us “skin in the game.” She does however propose the idea of a tax imposed on big tech companies when they decide to collect data. Right now, the data collectors have great leverage over us, the data sources.
She ties her points together by recognizing that increased data literacy across the population can aid in individuals becoming data stakeholders. She points to Estonia as a country that is teaching data literacy from a young age, and roughly 99% of their government operations are happening online. She also names libraries as vital tools to serve the public, the “literal OG data stewards.”
“We, the Data: Human Rights in the Digital Age” is currently available for pre-order from various retailers. Visit her website for more details. It releases on Oct. 10!