The outcome of political elections or the safety of world leaders might seem unconnected to the clickbait you succumb to at 2:00 am, but your identity—or what’s manufactured of you—online has become a currency in high-stakes transactions.
Don’t believe me? Ask almost-the-first-female-President-of-the-United-States Hillary Clinton. So what’s an online boy living in the modern age going to do about this? Get informed.
According to Google, identity is defined as: “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.”
If you’re on any social media platform—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—you’ve got an online identity that’s readily accessible over the internet, and usually intentionally so. Take the 10-year challenge as an example. The narcissistic side of ourselves likes to publically project our current pseudo-identity all over the internet because social media is a construct to manicure our image, perception and identity—and boy, do we live for it.
Although iconic, the Gucci sneakers and the European summer on the Greek islands don’t define us exclusively (except you LiLo), but rather superficially. But let’s go deeper, because the internet’s got your public identity and a profile on you.
You’ve been profiled and Hillary is pissed
The web pages you click on, the things you buy online, the events you are interested in, the memes you post, your political opinions (yes Bob, your cowboy hat is as out-dated as your opinions)—you’re teaching the internet to make informed decisions to tailor ads, apps and articles to what you’re interested in. Kind of like how an employee from Dan Murphy’s might recommend Little fat lamb to a uni student.
Turning privacy settings up is not enough to prevent this from happening—most of your apps are in cahoots with others. Facebook is a prime example, owning Messenger and Whatsapp, Instagram, Masquerade and Moves. This means that your conversations, the images you post, facial recognition and location, are all in the hands of one guy—Zuckerberg.
That’s why, studying abroad as I write this, I’m getting ads about the latest Dodge 4WD, Coventry Homes—a sponsor of a Canadian Ice Hockey team—and recommendations for articles like “Which pumpkin spiced product are you?”
Fortunately, the algorithms (problem-solving) these apps use are fallible and not always successful—that’s why an alarming few of us have been recommended $2 crack pipes from Wish. One way you can crack your personal algorithm (just to stick it to the man) is by clicking on all the events and adds that pop up on your feed. This can extend to Facebook, Buzzfeed and many other internet platforms. Soon enough you’ll get those $2 crack pipes recommended when intended.
Luckily, information collected on browsing history, social media and hits barely scratch the surface on profiling and the complexity that is you online. But that “superficial” information isn’t really being used insidiously. I mean, it’s not like it’s being used to tamper with federal elections, right?
Through shady privacy agreements of various Facebook apps, Cambridge Analytica was granted access to the infinite pool of personal information on ~ 90 million users in 2018, just through what’s available on Facebook. This data—that we believe is otherwise safe and secure—was used to profile consumers and make targeted ads to polarise the US election toward Trump’s reign.
Hardly a coincidence that after this major invasion of both security and privacy CA is now closing down. Creepy isn’t it? Cambridge Analytica aside, what are the biological and tangible things that make you, you, that no one else has (sozza, you’re not the only one on the Gucci bandwagon).
Your face, your voice, your fingerprints, your DNA—these are exclusively yours, a part of what makes your identity unique. So, are we giving away our identities consentingly? Where does that information go? And who has access to it?
Voice, face and fingerprint
Good news first: the facial and fingerprint recognition software that Apple uses in their latest devices is safe. Your fingerprints and facial features are securely encrypted in a special secure enclave exclusively found in your iPhone, not on iCloud. But with the 10-year challenge recently suspected of a facial recognition scheme, Apple could be the least of our worries.
Although Siri (the better known artificial intelligence—sorry Sophia) might record your voice, hear the nuanced ways you say a given phrase differently and learn, the voice cues you give her are allegedly secure too. But Siri isn’t the only listener.
As per general conventions of conversation, when someone speaks, someone else listens (attention: fuckbois—why not give it a try sometime?). That’s precisely what our phones and AI are doing.
It’s no secret that metadata (call/text message log, number sending, number receiving, time of call/message, location) has been retained by telecommunications companies for a loooong time now. Facebook has come clean on keeping records of all of this too, plus your contacts. Zuckered.
What’s more, the strict laws allegedly prohibiting “listening in” on peoples calls have been known to be pointless for some time. This has been confirmed for Australians and is likely the case for those “protected” by the European General Data Protection Regulation passed in May last year (conveniently around the time of the Cambridge Analytica debacle).
Through the “Five Eyes”—especially America’s National Security Agency (NSA)—billions of calls are intercepted, eavesdropped on, recorded, and stored in a bunch of databases linked to Google, Facebook and Skype on the daily.
But this has actually been going on for some time. PRISM, fielded by the NSA, has been ousted for doing this since 2013. Now, what if I told you that Google—through the number of different apps and entities affiliated—makes recordings of your voice for around 30 seconds and stores them in an online database? While Google has been transparent with their recordings, allowing users to delete the recorded phrases, who might be allowed access to that information? The NSA? And by proxy, the UN?
“OK Google” is a known trigger phrase, but a cheeky “OK” has been found to start our phones listening to us for up to half a minute. So what words are on the list triggering our phones to spy on us? And what other apps use verbal cues to eavesdrop on us on the regular? Good time to throw Zuckhead under the bus again too—Facebook admitted to accessing and using your microphone. Just watch the “catfood experiment” if y’all don’t believe me. Bad news: your identity is on file and it’s up for sale.
So your conversations, voice, face and life are on file, and things are looking bleak—what’s left to lose? Your DNA. DNA isn’t just the biological spiral staircase inside all of us living things, but within that lengthy double helix is a library of all your genes.
Genes code for every single piece of information about you. Things you’re explicitly aware of—like eye colour, shoe size, hatred of coriander—and things you’re perhaps not so aware of, like ancestral ethnicity, genetic weight (yep thanks mum and dad) and your risk of breast cancer.
This combination of genes, comprising your DNA, is your genome, and just like every library in the world, each one is unique and has a different collection of books (Some of the books are like a collector’s edition Wuthering Heights—quality and well written—but others have a few pages missing and should really be taken out of the library catalogue #geneticlottery).
To date there are allegedly 21,306 genes—it’s still being disputed over (classic science). In Australia, it costs just over $6000 to get your genome sequenced (courtesy of the Garvan Institute).
Illumina—a multi-million dollar genomics boss—aim to drop this down to $100 one day. Nifty! This is a lot less than the 2.7 billion dollarinos it used to cost back when the human genome was first sequenced in 2003.
Most of us don’t want a complete genome and can’t fully interpret a complete genomic profile either. In this day and age, companies like Ancestry.com and 23andme (who collaborate) are actively working towards providing us with a snapshot of that genome with some choice genes—notionally whatever consumers want—for as cheap as possible.
With simple saliva testing, 23andme can provide you with your risk of nine different diseases and the 12 genes associated. Yeah, you get 12 bestsellers from your library but you’ve just paid them to take the other 21,294 off your hands—without so much as a look at them.
- “We may share aggregate information … so that you cannot reasonably be identified as an individual, with third parties”
- “your personal information will likely be among the assets transferred …”
- “required to disclose personal information in coordination with regulatory authorities …”
Just who are the “third parties” that could potentially access our genomes for Zuck sake!?
I found this all a bit vague, to be honest, so I gave 23andme a cheeky phone call. Here are a few cherry-picked questions from my list:
- Who is your company affiliated with as a third party? Which of these are owned by your company?
- Do these third parties have links to Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and other applications? Is 23andme an affiliate of Facebook and associated enterprises or vice-versa?
- If I access my records via a service provider—like google, internet explorer, Safari, Mozilla firefox—do the owners of these third-party networks have access to my genetic information?
23andme have been approached for comment but we have not yet received a reply.
One major issue is that we don’t actually know all the implications of giving someone access to that information, yet more and more people are partaking in genomic sequencing.
What we do know is that just like discrimination still happens for things – like the colour of our skin (SLC24A5, MFSD12, OCA2, HERC2 etc.)—discrimination can now happen based on genes. This gene-based discrimination occurs in ways you might not think, and in ways we can’t realise now.
Even though the “risk” of a disease is not an assurance, the results of genetic testing are already being used to discriminate against individuals for life, disability, or long-term care insurance. Imagine a world where discrimination can happen from birth—not just from what we can see or surmise about a person, but just by looking at what you’re innately born with.
One particular variant in the MAOA (monoamine oxidase A) gene has been associated with psychopathic predisposition. However, not all individuals who have this variant are psychopaths—namely neuroscientist James Fallon.
What if, in order to protect their citizens, government bodies were to enforce the incarceration of all individuals with an unfavourable variant (like. MAOA-L), and genome-sequencing companies were legally obliged to disclose this and identify these individuals? Where does the line get drawn? The book doesn’t have the luxury of being judged by its cover.
Genetic discrimination is happening—by race, disability, medical conditions, empathy/clinical mind/personality/motivation, predispositions, sexuality (yep, genes TSHR and SLITRK6 have known associations with sexual orientation)—the world is your oyster. Or are you the world’s oyster?
Think twice before you pay someone to keep your one-and-only, unique identity.