We live in the Panopticon

We were warned, over and over, although many of the warnings pointed to the wrong bogeyman.

We now find ourselves in a Panopticon society, one where our locations and contacts and interactions are constantly monitored, where our data is mined and used for behavior modification.

Fourteen years ago the political magazine Reason rattled many of its subscribers by shipping a personalized issue. On the cover was a satellite photo of the subscriber's home. Spying from space! But the cover story dismisses corporate spying ("when dealing with private corporations, you generally can choose whether to give them your information") while painting government databases as the road to a police state.

Now our data is being mined by corporations and used, without our knowledge or choice, by political consultants and foreign agents to manipulate our elections -- the hijacking of government power through the use of vast corporate resources.

The disclosure that Facebook has been handing private profile data over to political entities like Cambridge Analytica has rattled both Facebook users and Facebook investors. Losing $80 billion in market cap is unheard of. European regulators were already on the attack. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether Facebook violated a previous consent order. Users are downloading their data history from Facebook, and many are shocked by what they find.

Would we be better off without all of this? That's not a simple question.

Certainly journalism would be better off. Behavioral targeting by vast advertising networks has turned the delivery of advertising into a low-margin commodity, while the targeting function is a high-margin business largely controlled by Facebook and Google. That's where the money has gone. An individual media entity is left to fight for scraps, and no amount of "digital first" focus will change that hard, ugly truth. Yesterday's big media players are outgunned and outnumbered. If you install the Ghostery browser extension and visit a few media websites, you'll see how few of the targeting beacons are coming from the website you're visiting. It's the ad networks. 

The social cost of tens of thousands of reporting jobs simply vanishing is the real problem. It's not simply a matter of individuals losing their income -- it's society losing the ability to keep watch on itself. And it's a global problem -- a "new dark age." As the watchdogs are silenced, scammers and purveyors of fake news rush in.

The eager creators of all this surveillance will point to the benefits, and they are real. By monitoring locations, Google can identify traffic blockages and suggest alternate routes. By monitoring my travel patterns over time, and of course by spying on my calendar, Google's AI can predict where I might want to go next, and warn me of those traffic blockages before I even get into my car.

As we plug in data sources from heart rate monitors, thermostats and video doorbells, and bug our own homes with AI-powered "speakers" that are really "listeners," we're creating opportunities for unimagined future benefits and unimaginable future abuses.  

We can't put the genie back into the bottle.

All of this calls for stiff regulation of data acquisition, aggregation, and usage. Facebook can afford it; their operating margins approach 50 percent. So can Google/Alphabet. It is tricky, though, to regulate commercial information practices without stepping on the First Amendment. The language "the press" isn't about squeezing paper into inked type. The amendment is clearly intended to forbid the restriction of free expression by a commercial enterprise, and not just by an individual. But that's why we have the courts. What we need now is a Congress that takes serious issues seriously, rather than constantly playing party politics.