In his book 1984, George Orwell describes a world where surveillance is everywhere, even in people’s bedrooms. There are microphones that listen to everything and screens that record it all while brainwashing victims into submission.
Although many see Orwell’s novel as a very descriptive map of today’s society, perhaps very few understand why 1984‘s society was as it was painted in the novel and illustrated in the movie.
One of 1984‘s main attractions is the so-called Thought Police, which many people say, resembles today’s trend of political correctness. As in 1984, people are only allowed to use some language, while certain words have become undesirable.
Molding thought is not only about censoring some words, it is about controlling language because when language is controlled discourse is also controlled and ultimately, thought is also appropriated.
Having our language and thought under control is a dystopian circumstance that would be difficult to believe if it wasn’t because we are living in it today when an army of perpetually offended folks aggressively silence speakers whose thoughts are different than theirs. If you don’t believe this is true because it doesn’t happen where you live, feel free to conduct a search on the internet for plenty of examples.
In our XXI century society, the Though Police is not composed of people dressed in black who carry wooden sticks to beat you up if you say something they disagree with. Rather, it is sadly composed of your friends and relatives who do not understand the importance of free speech; no matter how offensive it may be at certain times.
As the authoritarians in Orwell’s novel, XXI century totalitarians are not solely interested in controlling your speech and behavior. Those are things that will come under their control anyway. They are interested in controlling your thoughts, the ideas that are created inside the gray matter between your ears.
What does 1984 or thought have to do with Big Tech and your personal data?
The power structure that governs over all of us has one simple goal: That when we, our children and grandchildren surrender our lives to them, it will be something done of our own free will. But they will not leave that to chance. What they will do is to carry out a process where submission to their desires will be a certainty. It will just take a little more time than if it were done by force.
No one in his right mind would speak out loud his complete name, ID number, bank account number and physical address to a stranger, but we all have given that and much more information to tech companies in exchange for becoming stars on social media platforms. That is an obvious example of voluntary submissions. Facebook, Google or Apple did not send an army to extract that information from you; you gave it to them voluntarily.
While censorship on social media is real, have you stopped to think about how many times you censored yourself because you thought your relatives or friends might dislike what you had to say, both on social media or family gatherings? More than once for sure. The question is, why did you censor yourself? Is it because you are afraid of being publicly shamed?
That is how thought is molded and controlled. If you were in doubt about saying something that you thought might offend someone you know, next time you won’t even think about it, you just won’t type it or say it in front of friends and family. It won’t be necessary for someone to grab you by the neck to force you to be quiet and prevent you from speaking. You will do that on your own. You will gag yourself up.
The seemingly invisible control that technology companies have over billions of users goes beyond speech, of course. It has to do with controlling who you are and more importantly, who you will be.
There is surely a lot of money to be made when an individual or a corporation takes possession of data, so a strong financial incentive is what drives most companies to exploit your personal information. But there is only so much money needed for an individual to realize his or her materialistic dreams. On the other hand, power and control are much more rewarding after wealth is accumulated.
If you want to control the future all you have to do is to create it
The times when the future was something that would take place randomly are over. Technology offers a vast array of options for those who have the ways and means to predict it. How do you predict the future? All you have to do is to know your past and present like the palm of your hand and possess the computational capacity to process data; lots of data.
Collecting and processing data is what Google, Facebook and to a lesser extent Apple do. Google is not the ad section of the Internet, even though it makes a handsome profit from it. Facebook is not only a social network and Apple is not just an innovative enterprise.
Recently, it was reported that Google possessed the most advanced quantum computing technology that is used for data processing. Even more recently we learned that the same company had sucked up medical data from millions of American patients. It was announced that Google would process all the medical data to facilitate patient care and that it would not charge a penny to do so.
So, if Google is not charging for doing what it does best -indexing information- what does the company gain from processing all this data?
Power and influence, of course.
One of the main objectives of Google, Amazon or Microsoft is selling their computing capacity, along with optimized tools to analyze medical data. That is why they need to access a huge amount of patient information.
Medical data are not only a reflection of the present health and health habits of millions of patients but also a means to predict what all those millions of people’s health will be like in the future. Possessing detailed descriptions of patients’ habits contained in medical records such as diet, exercise, work, and livelihoods, companies can certainly predict future behavior and mold that behavior by pre-empting it with propaganda placement of products and services and the only thing that people will wonder is how is it that this company knows exactly what I eat, drink, what medications I take and what habits I have?
You can’t have good predictive analysis and classification techniques if you don’t have good databases and now, Google has both. Having these databases is going to involve several business models of high interest, which can lead to new diagnostic methodologies and medications. A goal is to sell these services to hospitals and biomedical research centers using a cloud model. Perhaps, data will never belong to hospitals, clinics or insurance companies, but they will pay to access such data.
Online advertising is another field that can exploit medical data. A Financial Times investigation shows how some of the UK’s most popular health pages offer specific data on online medical consultations, including medical symptoms, diagnoses, drug names, fertility information. These have ended up in the advertising unit of Google, in the databases of Facebook or in Amazon Marketing.
Google accessed the medical data of millions of patients thanks to an agreement with a private medical group, to allegedly teach their algorithms to make recommendations to patients.
The case highlights the appetite of Big Tech for medical data, how the axiom moves fast and their invasiveness is more alarming than ever before.
In recent years, some of the most powerful Silicon Valley companies have promoted projects to approach the health sector. It is one of the ways they know best: data collection and analysis.
Amazon already sells programs to companies in this sector that analyze medical records to facilitate prescriptions and even diagnoses. Both aspects are included in the catalog of solutions offered by the Watson supercomputer, whose creator, IBM, has endeavored to market in hospitals.
As amazingly invasive as all this sounds, preliminary analysis from privacy experts shows that none of these companies have violated privacy laws. In fact, they are bolder than ever in their attempt to obtain sensitive medical information while patients have no way to opt-out.
Amazon has also created a team focused on “health and wellness” within the division that works with Alexa, its voice assistant. Its objectives, they say, are the management of diabetes and the care of mothers and the elderly. Google follows the same path. It has enhanced the capabilities of its voice assistant for doctors with its Medical Digital Assist program. But this is only one of its assets.
Microsoft has its own specific service within its cloud platform. Azure for Health is an artificial intelligence program to analyze the medical records of patients. Apple has been collecting personal parameters for years with its Health application, along with the help of its Watch. Now it has reached agreements with medical providers in the United States to access the medical records of patients and integrate them with the data they already have.
The Real Value of all these data
The crossing of medical data with which these companies store has a great value. They are very juicy databases because they allow you to get a lot of information in terms of traceability or social profiling, about the habits of users that have health problems or about the sociological niches where these users are educated.
One of the keys to understanding the interest of technology in the health sector is in the numbers. In 2018, in the United States, the medical market generated a turnover of 3.65 billion dollars, according to the US government agency Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. This is where the juiciest market is, especially given the private nature of health services in the country.
The digital giants, which are characterized by their voracity when entering new businesses, have the right weapon to seduce the health sector.
According to an estimate by the American Clinical and Climatological Association, by 2020 the amount of medical data will double every 73 days. In 2010, this happened every 3.5 years. The volume of information seems now difficult to manage.
And if digital giants have done something right, it is to analyze data. They have been doing it with their users for more than a decade. Google, to refine advertising segmentation and Amazon, to optimize the recommendations of its products.
They have the computing capacity to do massive data analysis. And there is an interest of these companies to generate a dependency on their computer models because if you are used to working with their tools it is very difficult for you to go to others. It is the same business model implanted by Microsoft with its operating system.
However, Silicon Valley has always treated doctors with very different data, such as patients’ interests, purchases, and desires.
In Europe, everything related to the health sector is subject to a proactive responsibility set by the GDPR. The principle of active responsibility implies that health services must establish their record of treatment activities, perform a risk analysis for both data security and citizens’ rights, implement appropriate security measures and establish procedures for notification of security breaches, carry out impact evaluations on the protection of personal data and designate a Data Protection Delegate.
Everywhere else in the world, even in the United States, patients’ data are out there ready to be grabbed by whoever comes up with the most attractive and creative idea. Although the first thought that comes to mind is that patients’ data are being collected for market monopoly and financial reasons, the truth is that monopoly and wealth are the third and fourth most important goals that Big Tech has. The first and second goals, as mentioned before, are power and control, and they are already on their way to achieve them.
With quantum computing capacity and unlimited data to analyze each and every one of our lives, Big Tech is bound to predict the future and to mold it to their liking by molding our behavior and our thoughts. It is very hard to see how anyone can be a truly independent thinker today -or tomorrow- if technology users are constantly bombarded with propaganda via screens and being listened to 24/7 via microphones located everywhere. Smart TVs, with cameras, “smart assistants” such as Alexa, Siri and others make it impossible for you to be you and there is no way to disconnect them unless you pick them up, smash them with a hammer and dump them in your recycling can. Unfortunately, for many out there it is too late. They can’t live without them anymore. Slavery is voluntary.