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Illuminati of Our Age

If you were drawn to this article because of its title, then chances are that you already know about Illuminati, which is an old myth about a hidden society of people that secretly control the world by manipulating and brain-washing everybody. (1) But, in this article, we are not going to talk about conspiracy theories or mad fiction. Instead, we will discuss the Real Illuminati of our age.

So, who is the real Illuminati of our age? It’s the huge enterprises like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft, which use techniques like behavioural tracking, big data and sentiment analysis to influence, affect and manipulate us. Sounds scary already, doesn’t it? In this article, we will learn about why these tech giants deserve to be called the Illuminati and what we can do to safeguard ourselves from them.

How do they collect our Data?
Whenever we are online, whether we’re on social media or browsing through webpages, we portray little pieces of our behaviour. The information might be just as little as liking a post on Facebook, searching for a specific item on Amazon, or even the portion of time we spend on a particular segment of a website while scrolling through it. All these little actions are referred to as ‘traits’ (2) or small acts of behaviour.

If ‘traits’ are taken separately, then they are pretty meaningless. However, when these traits are constantly being recorded and are detected in millions of people, patterns emerge.

These companies have developed algorithms (or complex computer programs) that can access, understand, and act upon these patterns to create individual ‘profiles’ of each and every one of us. (3) Moreover, our private data like browsing history, uploaded pictures and online conversations are also evaluated for our profiles.

From these ‘profiles’, companies can accurately predict almost all kinds of things about us, ranging from our interests, hobbies, financial status and routines (4) to our emotional state at any given point of time. (5) So we can conclude that these tech giants can collect and evaluate our personal data and can do so very profoundly.

What do they do with this Data and How does it affect us?

After preparing the ‘Database of Profiles’, companies put it up for different uses:

Marketing Strategies:
A lot of this data is used to compute what a consumer would like to buy and is then targeted with advertisements of the same product. This leads to a system of personalized advertisement systems. But it does not end here. These algorithms can also analyze our emotions, and target ads at a time when we are the most vulnerable, thereby, sub-consciously manipulating us.

Sale of Data:
Sale of data refers to ‘the sale of database prepared by one enterprise to another enterprise, organization or individual.’ The other organization can then use the data received for fulfilling its own purposes. For example, a fitness app can sell its data to a health insurance company, which will use that data to form separate policies for different individuals on the basis of their health.

From the last 2-3 decades, this activity has emerged to be one of the most lucrative ones.
But the question is “How does it affect us?”. For us, it could lead to discrimination. Taking reference from the above example, the health insurance company can treat a person who has impressive statistics in the fitness app database differently from the one who doesn’t. Research suggests that even though these practices are against law, they happen and are exceedingly difficult to identify.(6)

How much do they know about us?
These companies keep on collecting our data for years and years, to an extent where the predictions of these algorithms are almost perfect.
In fact, they know so much about us that these algorithms can predict what we want even before we realize it ourselves. On the basis of these predictions, enterprises can buy products on the behalf of consumers beforehand and sell those products later at a margin when demand increases. (7)

Behavioural Tracking has become one of the most important components of business in modern times.
Before tracking and profiling programs were introduced, businesses were dependent on physical marketing manipulations which had its limits and were pretty ineffective. However, in the late 20th century, when ‘Individual Tracking and Profiling’ was introduced, it started making businesses more and more profitable and benefitting the corporates in ways they couldn’t have ever imagined.

As a result, an entire industry is formed around ‘Following and Compiling Profile for each of us’. This industry is growing at such a pace that it is expected to be worth $1786 million by 2025. (8)

How do they manipulate us into giving our personal data?
It starts by ticking that little box saying “I have read the terms and conditions.” But have you really read the terms? If not, then you’re not the only one. (9)
In August 2016, the Norwegian Consumer Council showed the world how unrealistic it is, to expect the consumers to actually read the terms and conditions. (10) In an experiment, it took them more than 31 hours to read the terms and conditions of apps which are usually present in an average person’s mobile. (10)

It’s worth noting that reading the terms and conditions is one thing but understanding them is another story altogether.
After that box is ticked, the companies have gained the right to gather our personal information and use it in ways which are hard for us to imagine. Yet, consumers hardly ever know if something like this is even happening. And the irony is that from the last 20 to 30 years, companies have argued against regulating the internet better because ‘users have consented to its terms and conditions’. (11)

So, we can conclude that receiving informed consent from consumers is close to impossible in the present ‘terms and conditions’ scenario.
How are we getting manipulated in a special personalized manner?
If companies know ‘When we are most vulnerable’, to ‘What things are we most sensitive towards’, then they can also compute how to affect our thinking about a particular subject, in the most effective and personalized manner.
The way they advertise a product to me might be different than how they advertise the same product to you. In addition, both of us would never be able to realize the difference in what we are getting because my phone/device is different than yours.
These will surely lead to more effective and personalized ads, but is that all? No, these algorithms can also be used to ‘persuade us to vote for a specific party’ in elections. Persuasion in a personalized manner is almost perfectly effective in achieving the desired electoral result. Evidence suggests that they are being used for the same.
Through a report of ‘The Guardian’ released on Jan 12, 2020 (12) Andrew Bosworth, the executive who foresee Ads campaign of Facebook during the presidential elections of US, 2016, revealed that candidate Donald Trump used Personalized Targeting Facebook Ad campaigns. (12) Andrew Bosworth further claimed that Donald Trump only won elections because he ran the single best digital ad campaign, better than what Andrew had ever seen in his life from any advertiser.

Illuminati Confirmed:
This single case of 2016 US presidential elections sheds light upon the potential danger democracy faces from this advanced technology. These huge tech companies can affect our values, beliefs and mentality, while we might not even realize what’s happening. In other words, they can control us without us realizing that we are being controlled. This surveillance is not like the one described in George Orwell’s ‘1984’ but is far worse than that because, in the novel, people knew they were being watched while we don’t.

How do we take back control?
Even though it is difficult to snatch back control from the Illuminati, it isn’t impossible. Firstly, governments need to create strong Internet regulations and ensure proper enforcement of the same. Consumers should demand clear, precise and understandable terms and conditions, and companies should be restricted from collecting and using our personal data without our informed consent.

For our own protection, we should use alternatives to these huge data-hungry tech giants. For example- We can use DuckDuckGo instead of Google as a search engine, which guarantees our privacy.

We, the informed citizens, should remind the world that technology is beneficial for a society only if it respects the basic rights of privacy.

The war against Illuminati is already going on. Would you like to be a part of it and help the world in getting rid of this creepy surveillance?

By Shivam Gupta

References: 1. As described by the Guardian; Reference article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/22/what-is-illuminati-google-autocomplete
2. Personality ‘traits’ as described by Research Paper: ‘Predicting Personality Traits Using Smartphone Sensor Data and App Usage Data’ Published in: 2018 IEEE 9th Annual Information Technology, Electronics and Mobile Communication Conference (IEMCON); Reference link: https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8614854/references#references
3. Fact extracted from Conference paper: Large-Scale Behavioral Targeting; Conference: Proceedings of the 15th ACM SIGKDD International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining; Reference link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221653347_Large-scale_behavioral_targeting
4. Resource Source: Media and Everyday Life by Tim Markham; Ch-1; Sub part: The question of habit; Reference link: https://books.google.co.in/books?id=rRgjDgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
5. Methods that are used for predicting emotional state of subjects include Sentiment analysis: Article reference: https://getthematic.com/insights/sentiment-analysis/
6. Research Article: Discrimination in the Age of Algorithms; Journal of Legal Analysis, Volume 10, 2018, Pages 113–174; Reference link: https://academic.oup.com/jla/article/doi/10.1093/jla/laz001/5476086
7. Speculation incarnated by: Alessandro Aquisti; Reference link: https://www.ted.com/talks/alessandro_acquisti_what_will_a_future_without_secrets_look_like/transcript?language=en
8. Article Reference: https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/PressReleases/eye-tracking.asp
9. Guardian Article: Click to agree with what? No one reads terms of service, studies confirm; Article reference: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/03/terms-of-service-online-contracts-fine-print
10. Article reference: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36378215
11. Said by: Finn Lützow-Holm Myrstad, Director of Digital Policy at the Norwegian Consumer Council in addressing in September 2018
12. Guardian Article: One year inside Trump’s monumental Facebook campaign; Article reference: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jan/28/donald-trump-facebook-ad-campaign-2020-election
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