The terror of Black Mirror: It’s not coming, it’s already here

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The terror of Black Mirror: It’s not coming, it’s already here

Every awkward Google search, credit card payment and deleted image can be uncovered, waiting to be exploited by hackers and webcam voyeurs

Rebecca Deucher

We have entered the age of artificial intelligence and it is clear that “big brother” is watching us all. Netflix’s sci-fi tech drama Black Mirror takes the figure of speech “so good it’s scary” to a new literal level.
The hit series is a dark reflection of a technological dystopia that in the near future could pass as our own. Using a fictional setting, the series addresses the ways we use technology or are used by it, exploiting anxieties about living in an increasingly digitised world. We need to ask ourselves in light of Facebook’s recent data breach and China’s 2020 plan whether Black Mirror’s terrifying predictions are becoming a reality?
On June 14 2014 the State Council of China published a document outlining a radical (terrifying) plan to launch its own compulsory social credit system by 2020. The aim? To rate the trustworthiness of its 1.3 billion citizens and create a national culture of “sincerity”.Imagine a place where every move and action you make is monitored and evaluated: what you say, the things you buy, what you post on social media, the people you spend time with and whether you pay your bills and taxes on time.
Already a reality, China wants to take it a step further by rating these behaviours as either positive or negative, creating a citizen score (a single number) which will be used to tell people whether you are trustworthy or not. The score will determine your ranking among the entire population and will assess how eligible you are for a job and whether your children can go to a particular school, establishing a preferential hierarchy for higher-rated individuals.“It’s Amazon’s consumer tracking with an Orwellian twist,” says Johan Lagerkvist, a Chinese Internet specialist at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
Individuals “who break the social trust” (defaulting a loan, not paying a bill on time, etc) will be penalised. People with low ratings “will have slower Internet speeds; restricted access to restaurants and the removal of the right to travel” which, some believe, is needed. According to tech and finance blogger Wen Quan, China needs a credit system as it will “build a better and fairer society”, creating trust between the government and its citizens.As seen in the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”, a social credit system creates a culture of disingenuity as human interaction is directed towards generating high ratings. What is most unsettling is that a social credit system may not be isolated to China in the future, marking the question: how good a citizen are you?
Facebook has made headlines after it was discovered that 50 million users’ data was harvested illegally by Cambridge Analytica (a private data analytics company) to analyse and influence voter behaviour for the 2016 US election. The information harvested by Cambridge Anayltica was used to map out voter behavioural patterns in 2016 for both the Brexit campaign and US presidential election.“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles and built models to exploit what we knew about them,” says Christopher Wylie (CA co-founder and whistleblower). The private company targeted the users’ “inner demons” between 2013 and 2015 to help boost the Brexit campaign and get Trump elected.
What is frightening is that a third party with access to your Facebook activity can create a character profile of you just on the basis of what you “like” and “react” to.
Cambridge University lecturer Aleksandr Kogan alongside CA developed an app called “this is your digital life” which he used to get voluntary information from millions of people through a conventional personality quiz.The main controversy surrounding the data breach (despite the invasion of privacy and other ethical breaches), is that Kogan assured the quiz participants that their information would be protected and used under the guise of academic research. Facebook has failed to protect us and why are we surprised? Will individuals end their relationship with the social media platform? No. 
Privacy settings cannot protect us. We live in the digital age and the reality is that there is no such thing as privacy. Big data ensures this, as “everything we do, both on and offline, leaves digital traces”. Every awkward Google search, credit card payment and deleted image can be uncovered, waiting to be exploited by hackers and webcam voyeurs. Facebook’s data breach and China’s 2020 plan reinforce how vulnerable we are in a rapidly advancing technological space. Black Mirror’s terrifying predictions will become our reality but to what extent is unknown. 
© The Daily Telegraph

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