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Status 2022
Smart data

Data Sharing is Caring

How data and algo­rithms will soon determine our future, and how the inventor of the Internet wants to save his creation

Do you want to become a millionaire in a short space of time? Then you better start collecting data straight­away because data is the new currency, and big data equals big bucks. Have we lost you? Don’t worry, we’re here to explain.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. You might not be aware of it yet, but you are working for billion-dollar corpo­rations – completely for free. That’s because you are providing valuable data without being paid a single cent. You’re what is referred to in the industry as a data miner, al­ways clicking away and duti­fully churn­ing out information. Day in, day out. Click by click. With every You­Tube video you watch, every post you like, and every question you Google, you are providing invaluable data. You type “How to lose weight”, one of the most frequently asked health-related questions of last year, into the search engine and you offer the algo­rithm insights into your state of health. You check out YouTube videos about latte art and tell an algo­rithm about what kind of coffee you like without getting anything in return. Your robot vacuum tidies up your home and you reveal to the manu­facturer the exact layout and size of your abode in square meters. Every­thing you’ve ever searched, liked, bought, or clicked online has most probably been recorded by algo­rithms. Every sports armband, navi­gation system, smart­watch, digi­tal scales with a function for mea­sur­ing your pulse, every website you visit, and every app you use collects heaps of valuable data about every­thing from how often your heart beats to how often you visit the dentist.

That’s not all. This ever-growing mountain of information about you and every other individual is being continuously analyzed. Programmers working for the internet giants are developing increas­ingly intelligent algo­rithms that use this data to generate increas­ingly accurate digital profiles about us, among other things. According to a study by the Washington Post, Facebook’s algo­rithm can, based on your brows­ing habits, determine 98 traits about you, including your level of education, how much your house is worth, what year you bought your car, what your favorite TV programs are, whether you have an outstanding balance on your credit card, and so much more. During his time as a researcher at the University of Cambridge, Michal Kosinski, now a professor at Stanford University, developed an algo­rithm that can help create an accurate personality profile about you based solely on your Facebook data. Are you more conser­vative or liberal? More impulsive and spontaneous or organized and hard-working? More placid or extro­verted, more competitive or a team player? The more you click that “Like” button, the better the algo­rithm knows you. 70 likes and up, it can judge you better than a friend, 150+ better than your parents, and 300+ better than your own partner. In any case, that’s the conclusion reached by Kosinski, who compared the algo­rithm’s results with the results of personality tests based on question­naires filled out by the relevant test persons.

But let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Where’s the good news? How much is a data miner’s work worth? Nobody actually tells you that, of course. Yet if we weren’t already aware, when­ever a techno­logy behemoth is sold or valued on the stock exchange or when­ever incidents akin to what hap­pened at Cambridge Analytica come to light, we know other people are making billions with our data. When Instagram was taken over, for example, the price was 20 dollars per user, 55 dollars for WhatsApp, and a staggering 200 dollars in the case of Skype. The internet giants are now earning billions with our data by helping companies place persona­lized ads and sell products on a massive scale. This works because smart algo­rithms know for a fact that today Mia from Munich is on the hunt for a very particular pair of shoes and Michael from Michigan for a bigger vehicle, as there’s a new addition to the family and his current car is already six years old. The algo­rithm also knows how much Michael is willing to pay and what make of car is best suited to his personality profile.

Yet the true power of our data only becomes clear when we look to the future. Let’s imagine two politicians are in the midst of an election cam­paign. Only one of them is using algo­rithms. Thanks to the immense amount of knowledge about every single voter and the oppor­tunity to win them over with information specific to them, this politician has a crucial advantage over her opponent. If she wins, which is inevitable, this politician will also let her algo­rithm decide what matters to focus on and what arguments to put forward in the future. She will leave it up to the algo­rithm to decide what strategy she, or should we say the algo­rithm, will pursue. After all, this algo­rithm is able to rapidly analyze a practically bot­tom­less sea of data and thus make far better decisions than the politician or her entire campaign team ever could.

And wouldn’t it be great if, thanks to biometric sensors implanted in your body, algo­rithms told you exactly how much omega 3 and vitamin B12 you should consume on a particular day for your brain to work to opti­mum capacity and for you to be more pro­duc­tive? Wouldn’t it be amazing if they also suggested your new favorite recipes and ordered and pre­pared the necessary products for you?

Why this Internet is not in the spirit of its inventor and how an Open Data law could help

There is already a clear growing trend of humans letting algo­rithms make decisions on their behalf. These algo­rithms know more and more about us. One day, they might well be able to control our feelings, and thus our decisions, via biochemical processes. At the same time, our own under­stand­ing of algo­rithms is decreasing.

Even now, the algo­rithms used by those we give our data to determine what billions of individuals see in their feeds and search results. By giving our data to these people, we are putting our future in their hands. This is not how Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, wanted his “baby” to turn out. That’s why, in 2018, he decided to launch the open source platform Solid, which ensures its users retain ex­clusive ownership of their data. A growing number of politicians, such as U.S. senator Elizabeth Warren, are calling for the breakup of internet giants that hoard and use our data for themselves. Similar demands can also be heard in the EU. Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), for example, is calling on Europe to force mono­polists such as Google and Facebook to share data in an anony­mized format in order to offset their position of power. The German government, meanwhile, has intro­duced new statutory regulations in a bid to establish a legal right to open data in public adminis­tration. The country’s Green Party is also de­mand­ing a Europe-wide, govern­ment-run alter­native to Facebook that would be financed by TV licens­ing fees rather than by our data.

We just have to ask ourselves whether, in the long run, the power over our data will really be in better hands with politicians than with businesses. In an interview with the German newspaper “Welt”, U.S. military strategist Sean McFate even warned that govern­ments are already leveraging the power of data and algo­rithms to wage a new, modern-day form of war. Instead of splurging money on expensive tanks and fighter jets, an increasing number of countries are using much cheaper and, above all, more anonymous weapons in the form of social bots and trolls. According to McFate, they systematically manipulate the mood on social media for their own strate­gic purposes. They do this with the help of data, of course, which acts as a kind of lubricating oil needed to make the manipu­lation machine truly efficient and cost-effective. In fact, according to a recently published report, Stratcom researchers man­aged to buy 50,000 interactions on Facebook for just 300 Euros. In his interview with “Welt”, McFate ex­plains that the outcome of Brexit, for example, is nothing more than one of Russia’s strategic military successes to destabilize Europe. The key ques­tion is: Who should our data belong to? After all, whoever has the data will hold the power in the future.

What it would be like if we could use the resource data to do good for all

But we could do so much good in the world with all this collected data! We could protect the environment, for example. How amazing would it be if cities could use freely accessible, anonymized mobility data from, say, car sharing companies or navi­gation apps to ensure buses and trams arrived on time and only when needed. To what extent would the level of traffic and CO₂ emissions go down?

How great would it be if all the data on health and vital signs collected by millions of owners of smart­watches, digi­tal scales, fitness trackers, and health apps such as sleep apps across the globe was made available to health­care researchers in an anony­mized format. They would then be better able to recognize patterns that cause illnesses and identify useful measures to nip diseases in the bud. They would need less time to deter­mine which forms of treat­ment would be most effective for which patient and could stop people from getting sick in the first place. The corona crisis also shows just how useful such data can be, with Deutsche Telekom pro­vid­ing access to anony­mized mass data from its mobile communi­cations network to the Robert Koch Institute so that researchers can better predict the spread of the virus. What’s more, over four million people have played the online game “Sea Hero Quest” and collected data for dementia research. How great would it be if, instead of a handful of people guarding masses of data like a precious treasure to further enhance their already huge advantage and monopoly position, each and every one of us had access to the data we all generate in an anony­mized format. What if we could all have a say in how algo­rithms are designed so we could use them for the benefit of society and to protect the environ­ment rather than to achieve economic goals and gain greater power?

From Startpage to Diaspora. Why you can do more than you think. Your contribution counts.

Pointing the finger at the major culprits is easy, but it doesn’t get us very far. Luckily for us, however, the internet already offers us plenty of opportunities to help shape the web how we want. Nobody is forcing us

to share our personal secrets with search engines. Platforms such as show us the exact same search results, just without extracting data or creating a filter bubble. Nobody is stopping us from coming together via social networks such as Diaspora that leave all user data well alone. Nobody is pro­hibit­ing us from making the most of the democratic opportunities offered by the internet and, for example by signing online petitions, from casting our vote for a way of regulating data that doesn’t generate profit or harm the planet. Nobody is stopping us from joining movements online and from supporting politicians who distribute data resources more equally across the globe.

Data and algo­rithms are per se neutral – it’s what we do with them that makes the difference. The internet enables us to establish large-scale movements that the world so desperately needs. Greta Thunberg is showing us how it’s done. Why shouldn’t our network also help make the web itself a better place again and shape the future of data? Data sharing is caring. We’re sure Tim Berners-Lee would agree. Now it’s up to you to take action.