What happens when there is dirt in your digital footprint?
Online reputation, once ruined, can lead to catastrophic consequences. The frontiers of algorithmic discrimination are expanding: they range from being denied access to education and employment to being shamed forever by all of humanity.
“I Did Not Mean It!” is Not an Excuse
It’s easy to make mistakes in the digital world. Especially if you are young and “did not mean it”.
Teenagers do not give a second thought to the fact that everything they post online is permanent and not private. The sheer amount of content they overshare with adolescent impulsivity makes mistakes inevitable — simply by the law of large numbers. Somebody would be offended by what they think is a harmless joke. And then all hell breaks loose for the offender.
Once something is out, it takes a life of its own. Deleting an incriminating picture or post is too late — it’s already been forwarded hundreds of times. People are outraged. Authorities are involved. “I was not thinking!” is not an excuse. They cannot take it back, and the record is permanent.
Kids’ online mistakes are criminalized.
It’s not about denying that they did something wrong. But the price they pay these days is too high: one misstep can ruin the rest of their life. They are labeled as cyberbullies and expelled from school. Nude pictures sent to a crush end up on the open Internet and land them with a sex offender record. Jokes about weapons result in an actual arrest.
With their immature brains and impulsive behavior — developmentally normal features of adolescence — teenagers mess up. A lot. That’s what teenagers always did. That’s what their parents did when we were young, and I am exceedingly grateful there is no online record of me at age 15. My kids would not be so lucky — for their generation, everything they do online can be used against them. As a mom, I am paranoid with my frequent lectures to my children: “Don’t share anything about yourself online!” As long as it is in my power, I encourage them to stay away from social media.
Colleges and employers routinely examine our children’s online histories. If they detect anything “inconsistent with our policies” in teenage social media chatter, our kids are not going to be admitted or hired.
Nothing would be forgotten, nothing would be forgiven. How fair is it to be judged at 26 by what you did at 13?
Too Late to Remain Silent
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you” is a phrase the police are required to say during an arrest. It is meant to protect the rights of the individual — presumed innocent until proven guilty. It’s the foundation of American democracy. The rule is based on the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution designed to prevent a person from accidentally incriminating themselves. Every lawyer would tell you that to remain silent is the wisest thing to do.
Except when the transgression has occurred online, it’s too late to remain silent. You are already condemned.
You already said everything that can and will be used against you.
Catherine Steiner-Adair in her book The Big Disconnect writes about 7-year olds being expelled from school for using violent language they picked up from the media and clearly did not fully understand. These children need adults’ help and screen time boundaries — not severe punishment! Even Jesus said on the cross: “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!” But society refuses to forgive children whose young vulnerable brains have been damaged by digital media that exploits them for profit.
The age of incarceration in America is 18, and many states have lenient prosecution limits for juvenile crime, based on the common knowledge of child development — the younger kids are, the less they are able to control their actions. The state forgives children for actual crimes. But schools can expel them for simple online pranks. Something is wrong with this picture.
There is no mercy for the young and clueless.
Several students had their Harvard admission revoked for sharing inappropriate memes. A Snapchap post cost a high school athlete admission to Cornell.
Checking social media is fair game for college admissions committees. And what they find there can cancel out all the good grades, athletic achievements, and volunteer work students submitted in their official applications.
It does not get any better after college. There is a long list of people being fired from their jobs for social media posts. In a climate of political correctness, even the most neutral opinions could be misinterpreted. There is no way to please everybody all the time. And let’s face it: younger employees are not equipped with high levels of self-control, growing up as digital natives in a culture of instant gratification.
Once their lack of self-control leaves a permanent record online, their reputation is ruined.
With everyday activities increasingly being recorded, you don’t even have to post anything yourself to get into massive amounts of trouble. A recent scandal comes to mind: three young women insulting an Uber driver over his request that they wear a mask. The behavior was ugly. The driver was traumatized and justice needs to be served. But let’s think for a minute about the young women and their future. This one recorded incident of stupid behavior will define them forever. That’s what the HR manager will see when they do their due diligence on them as a potential hire — and there would be no job offer. Young men who could have become their future husbands would google these girls’ notorious “claim to fame” — and there would be no marriage proposal. No future children.
The consequences can be life-altering.
Frontiers of Algorithmic Discrimination
The dirt in our digital footprint can potentially be used by any industry or authority. Historically, a bankruptcy in your credit history would limit your access to credit. Riskier customers are charged exorbitant interest rates. It’s absolutely legal: you have to pay a higher price to justify the risk the bank is taking with you.
Finding dirt in the digital footprint of individuals is quickly becoming the new standard of risk management for a number of industries. It’s happening for real.
Insurance companies can get access to your health data and driving patterns, and price their policies accordingly. Social media profiles are analyzed by HR departments and anything questionable could make you unemployable. Sexting as a teenager? No job interview for you — 20 years later. Everyone can Google your name and make a final judgement on your character based on what they see — even if it’s not true. Unless you live in Europe, Google is not obligated to remove reputation damaging posts.
We have no right to be forgotten, and no chance to be forgiven.
Now let’s expand this notion to every possible human endeavor. Could data about teens’ cyberbullying incident be used to price their future loans and insurance policies? Why not. Their digital footprint looks dirty — they should pay extra for their “bad character”. It’s the law of economics. Being flagged for extra airport security? Having their relationship options limited on dating apps? Being denied access to certain professions?
There is no limit to algorithmic discrimination.
Behavioral profiling already allows advertisers to price products differently to different individuals. Algorithmic discrimination can be intentional or unintentional: a wide-spread algorithmic bias breeds unfairness in the marketplace, job market, education, healthcare, politics, and justice system, and with AI being a proprietary “black box”, the algorithms are not accountable to anyone.
Facts one would be ashamed to share with the therapist can be algorithmically revealed by social media history. But unlike your doctor or lawyer, social media companies are not limited by ethical codes of conduct. Using data of childhood trauma and abuse to sell antidepressants with dangerous side effects? By all means. Using data about hidden sexual dysfunction to sell Viagra and direct users to porn sites? Sure. Using deep psychological insecurities dating back to middle school to sell overpriced brands? Why not. Using body image issues to sell expensive diets and plastic surgeries? Be my guest.
How about using digital history of suicidal ideation and self-harm to exploit a depressed teen instead of saving their life? Well, it depends — the algorithm will direct the user to the solution that PAYS MORE — to the owners of the platform. It’s efficient. It is optimized for the outcome. Which is profit — not human wellbeing.
Is compromising human happiness legal? Unfortunately, yes. Is it ethical? Far from it.
Hostage to Data
Being held hostage to your data is a modern form of slavery. In the ancient times, if you were enslaved, you could maintain your inner freedom. One could combine outward compliance with inward defiance. Enslavement by big data is different. It knows your every move and every thought.
Digital reputation of the user becomes a weapon of control. Whoever owns your data, owns you.
Famous behavioral psychologist BF Skinner, on whose work addictive technology is largely based, labeled individual freedom as an anomaly in his 1970s controversial book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Beyond indeed. The notion of programmable human behavior that resulted in shock and indignation just a few decades ago is now a reality, made possible by machine intelligence and the incentives to use it for mind control.
Every outcome for every member of society becomes predictable and programmable. At the cost of individual human free will — eliminated as a dangerous anomaly by AI weapons of social engineering. That’s our present and our future. Tech industry programs our behavior to make money, but there is another entity that is extremely interested in algorithmic control — the government.
Government + Big Data = End of Democracy.
Enemy of the State
China’s social credit score is a reality for 1.4 billion Chinese people — and a preview of the dystopian future that awaits the rest of us. Social credit is an algorithmic tool for the control of the population: the authorities can flip the switch and magically generate the desired behavior in millions of citizens. Or course, all in the name of maintaining law and order.
How does it work? In short, it’s the mechanism to blacklist individual citizens based on their “bad” online and real world behavior. You did not pick up after your dog, smoked in the wrong place, put your recycling in the garbage, attended a religious gathering, or — wait for it — wrote a politically incorrect social media post.
Your social credit score drops. Your friends notice, and abandon you in fear that their scores would be affected by association with an “enemy of the state”. Your score plummets further, going into a death spiral. Your options for freedom and dignity disappear:
- You cannot buy a plane or a train ticket
- Your access to credit is limited
- You cannot rent an apartment
- You are denied employment
- You cannot book a hotel
- Your children cannot attend private schools and are banned from universities
- You are publicly shamed and your blacklist status is displayed for all to see on WeChat, a messaging app used by most Chinese.
People who are deemed “untrustworthy” by the government face severe economic and legal punishments, their life a living hell.
On the other hand, praising the government on social media can get you on a whitelist with access to privileges and discounts. So is reporting on the misdeeds of your fellow citizens, creating a culture of fear. The same social technique sent millions of Russians to perish in Siberian Gulag concentration camps in Stalin’s Soviet Union: neighbors reporting on neighbors, wives reporting on husbands, children reporting on parents.
The social credit is made possible by the massive surveillance system and AI implemented by the government in collaboration with the big business — banks, online marketplaces, social media platforms — obligated to report the data on individual users in fear of economic sanctions. Facial recognition technology makes it impossible for anyone to hide.
Reward and punishment. Carrot and stick. Dehumanizing people to live in fear and obedience to the government is a totalitarian dream. George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 becomes a reality with Big Data supplying incriminating facts to the police state that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao could only dream of.
Big Brother is always watching. Better keep your digital footprint clean.
Her research on the relationship between technology and psychology seeks to reveal how digital behavior manipulation affects human wellbeing.