TOC Democracy with the soul of a machine Your Turn

September 16, 2008

Democracy requires periodic elections and putting the first office in the land at stake provides focus. Hence my past appeal to presidential candidates in the name of eprivacy, in France last year, this year in the United States. So far with little to show for my effort.

When a major data broker inveigles a US presidential candidate into accepting his financial support, one can expect from her a certain lack of concern about privacy. This is pronoacracy pure and simple, the government of the people by the lobbyists for the corporate interests. The two remaining contestants' campaigns may be free of undue influence, the way they are run should still give pause to everyone. Data aggregators do not need to finance either Barack Obama or John MacCain to further their interests.

Per Kevin Allison and Richard Waters' analysis (*), "both the Republicans and Democratic voter files now include around 170m names [...] though neither party is prepared to talk in detail about all the types of information it has on individual voters". A good client of data brokers, a data aggregator himself, not exactly keen to embrace transparency when it concerns profiling, how could the next US President defend our data rights ?

Take for instance the latest move by Google in TV advertising, as reported by Miguel Helft and Brian Stelter (**). "Analysts said that [...] to effectively direct its ads the company needs to gain access to [consumer] data from television set-top boxes". Be assured Google is fully aware of the benefits of such privacy invasion. Recall Eric Schmidt's enthusiasm for a similar deal with BSkyB almost two years ago. If asked now to justify himself, the CEO of Google will just point to the US President. "He targeted his political campaign based on a rich consumer profile database and so do I with my advertising campaigns. What's wrong with that?"

Count of course on democratically elected presidents to figure out the finger pointing defense. Ben Hall told us about the French resistance to the new surveillance database planned by the French government (***). Savor this quotation attributed by Christopher Caldwell (****) to "one of Mr Sarkozy's advisers" to Le Figaro. "Let's not be hypocrites. There is probably more information on the internet than in our police files". That's right. "Where Google leads, the government follows. What's wrong with that?" By all means, let us hide the forest behind the tree.

Such behavior justifies attempts to compare democratic administrations with for profit companies, an exercise which is wont to find against the former where, as Luke Johnson aptly puts it (*****), "no one is absolutely in charge and no one has enough upside from taking a meaningful risk".

For profit companies however are not gleaming beacons simply by virtue of being private. Enjoy Tyler Brűlé's relation of a recent and oh so frustrating encounter he had with British Airways (******). No bureaucrat will ever top the staff in "the BA first-class check-in area" at Heathrow.

There lies a deeper lesson. Turing famously challenged engineers (1) to develop a machine able to dialog with an observer so that the observer could not know it from a human being. Nobody has met the challenge yet but what about the reverse? As Brűlé's sketch proves convincingly, it is quite possible to train employees to dialog with an observer so that the observer could not know them from a machine. If BA were truly efficient, it would replace such expensive staff with cheap computers.

Unfortunately democratic administrations take heart in aping clueless private companies. Joe Sharkey's media campaign against the "federal terrorist watch list" (*******) shows what you get when you scale up BA's approach to customer service. Apply poorly designed rules to an incomplete and corrupted database, slap a human face on it and lo and behold, "Jack Anderson, age 7" is flagged as a flight risk. "What's wrong with that?"

Candidates, beware. Both your personal zeal and the great country you aspire to lead deserve more than a democracy with the soul of a machine.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............... Hot-button election. How the internet drives the US campaign, by Kevin Allison and Richard Waters (Financial Times) - September 12, 2008
  • (**) ............ Google Strikes Partnership With NBC to Expand in TV Advertising, by Miguel Helft and Brian Stelter (New-York Times) - September 9, 2008
  • (***) .......... Paris retreats on new security database, by Ben Hall (Financial Times) - September 11, 2008
  • (****) ........ France only wants to know, by Christopher Caldwell (Financial Times) - September 13, 2008
  • (*****) ...... How to dodge the downside of democracy, by Luke Johnson (Financial Times) - September 10, 2008
  • (******) .... Pre-flight turbulence, by Tyler Brűlé (Financial Times) - September 13, 2008
  • (*******) .. Mom and Dad Are Cleared, But Junior's Another Story, by Joe Sharkey (New-York Times) - September 9, 2008
  • (1) see the Turing test in the wikipedia
September 2008
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