"I don't understand why we're having this conversation at the Regent," Jiyeon said, looking around. "I'm not comfortable talking about this in a public space."
"Look at your phone," Liz said.
Jiyeon did. No signal; no wifi.
"It's probably a safer space than your own flat," Liz said. "Someone might overhear us, but the most they'll think is that we're some paranoid hackers talking about something they don't understand. If someone really wanted to listen in to us, they wouldn't need to physically follow us. All of us carry a portable tracking device in our pockets."
"But it's not like it's listening all the time," Taylor said.
"Actually, it probably is," Liz countered. "Cellphones have always had a microphone that could theoretically be switched on remotely, but now intelligent assistants like Siri and the Google Assistant give them a great cover to be listening all the time. Theoretically they're only supposed to send data to the server when you address them by saying Hey Siri or Okay Google, or whatever the wake phrase is on your phone, but in order to do that, they're capturing your words all the time and converting them to text. Software on the phone can intercept that text and do whatever it wants with it. That's why sometimes you see targeted advertising for products you were just talking about. Some of the apps are hacking into that intelligent assistant functionality and taking advantage of it."
"On top of that," Jiyeon chimed in, "they have an efficient GPS sensor that tracks where you've been, for all those fitness apps. It used to be that you had to turn location services on and off, but now they're mostly just on all the time, and being stored on the phone. And I guess all those apps can access that as well."
"And all your phone and text records, your address book, and probably your payment history, too, if you have one-touch payments set up," Liz said. "Your phone knows what you're saying, where you've been, who you're with, what you've bought, and what you like. And because all of that data gets sent to the same place, you're just one of hundreds of millions - possibly billions - of data points. A corpus of very personal profiling data about people across borders, regions, and industries."
"Which means they can make predictions about what you'll do next," John said.
"Exactly. It's not just about knowing what you've done. Machine learning algorithms take that corpus of data and, based on what other people have done, make inferences about what you'll do next. If they're correct, the model is reinforced. If they're wrong, that data is captured, and the model is improved. Over time, they can predict to a frightening degree of accuracy how everyone in the world will behave."
"It's like it's reading our minds," Taylor said.
"Yeah. Kind of. Except it doesn't need to read our minds. We're all far more predictable than we think we are."
"I don't think I completely buy that," Lex said. "Algorithms are a product of the people who make them. So, let's say they're built by affluent, male software engineers in Menlo Park. I don't believe for a second that they have the nous to understand how to predict the actions of someone in Pakistan, or in rural China."
"That's probably true," Liz said, "but the algorithm improves over time. The greatest concentration of data is, without a doubt, in Silicon Valley itself, which is probably the most surveilled place on earth, even if its residents don't know it. So the models are the most accurate there, for sure. But even if they start off as being less accurate in other places, they still get more accurate over time. And it's no surprise that all of these companies are making big inroads into what they call 'new markets', so they can discover insights about entirely new populations, and make money out of what they find. All of that requires tracking the hell out of them, and they consider it a business problem to solve that they don't have that data yet."
"But also," Lex said, "it kind of hurts a little bit to think that a software program can predict my actions. I want to believe I'm a self-directing, autonomous adult. I'm not just following some pattern - I have free will."
Liz smiled and raised an eyebrow. "But what is free will?" She laughed. "Don't worry, I'm not qualified to have that philosophical discussion, and I won't even attempt it. In reality, when you look at these algorithms, there are always outliers - but the outliers aren't consistently so. You might be an outlier with respect to this one factor, while Jiyeon might be an outlier with respect to another. But there are a lot of ways in which you'll conform to the model - and if you don't, the model will eventually figure that out and understand your patterns.
And that," she said, bringing her attention back to her laptop on the pub table in front of her, "brings me to these files. Because that inference - those predictive models - are what they're all about."
Jair Bolsonaro. A well-known fascist who wants criminals to be summarily shot at point blank range instead of facing trial, who described indigenous people as parasites, and whose views on birth control and population growth are laced with eugenics. He calls Afro Brazilians fat and lazy, and wants to physically punish children in order to prevent them from being gay. Somehow, this man was elected President of Brazil in October 2018.
One of his major promises was to repeal protections against mining and logging in the Amazon rainforest.
The European Union. A broadly progressive customs union that was leading in the way in privacy and environmental legislation, helping the world move away from both ubiquitous surveillance and fossil fuels. The EU had agreed to aggressive (although some felt not aggressive enough) emissions targets. And suddenly, it was under attack from well-funded campaigns, including Brexit in the UK, spearheaded by local fascists in the UK Independence Party, and far-right governments in countries like Poland and Hungary.
Donald J. Trump. A populist leader who had grown a following through reality television, which had enhanced his image as a businessman who made shrewd deals and grew an enormous empire based on his intelligence and ruthlessness. In reality, he was a financial vampire whose businesses frequently went bankrupt, and whose net worth was a fraction of what he claimed. He was also a racist and misogynist, who had been sued for refusing to allow people of color to rent his properties, and who bragged that his fame allowed him to grab women "by the pussy". A President whose refusal to condemn white supremacists led to a 17% increase in hate crimes during his first year in office. And a leader who was more than willing to deny the reality of climate change and pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement.
All elected using sophisticated data profiling. All heavily financially backed with unknown means. All taking the world's people further away from hard-won civil liberties and replacing it with authoritarian control. All repealing environmental protections that had been put in place to ensure a future for the planet.
And as Liz's files showed, all funded by the same people.
The table sat, speechless, as Liz went through the files, one by one. Entire governments had become puppets at the hands of enormous businesses with unconstricted wealth, which could make or break a politician's chances of achieving power. Time after time, they prevented people from self-organizing and creating infrastructure that would undermine their profits.
Entire industries were shaped by this capital power. Technology companies were founded to make peoples' lives better, but they were funded to become data collection devices. The entire purpose was to learn as much as possible about everybody in the world, and to direct how they thought and acted. It was an apparatus that the Nazis a hundred years ago could only have dreamed of; one that could make the worst atrocities seem voluntary.
This movement didn't have a name; it didn't have a head; but it unmistakably moved as one.
Capitalists spoke of the invisible hand of the market as a construct to describe how consumers behaved. In decades past, that might have really been how it worked. In reality, in 2018, consumer behavior was almost entirely controlled using data and influence. The market itself was shaped by an invisible hand; on purpose, and with intent.
The world wasn't in danger of falling into fascist rule. The world was already under fascist control. Having made their way into power with data and technology as their weapons of revolution, the fascists were now simply losing their cloak of invisibility.
And all in the name of oil.
"I'm sorry I brought you here," Liz said, finally. "This is much bigger than I thought it was. I hope they don't know I have this, or they don't care. I've put you all in danger."
She looked at them all in turn. Young people, with their whole lives ahead of them. In a different time, they would be about to enter a world of possibilities. In this one, their freedoms would be rapidly curtailed by a power they couldn't stop. It seemed so unfair.
"I don't see that we have a choice," Jiyeon said.
"How do you mean?" Liz said.
"We can't walk away," Jiyeon replied. "You can't see something like this - something that affects peoples' lives all over the world - and then magically unsee it. You can't not try and do something about it. To live out your life knowing that this is happening would be wrong."
"I don't know what we can do," Liz said, shaken. "Honestly, I don't. It's everywhere. It's in everything. It's too much. If we even tried, they could swat us like flies. We have nothing."
"Maybe," Jiyeon said, "but that isn't a reason to not try."
She looked around the table. "Each of us have to make our own decisions. We won't be able to solve this alone. We'll need help; we'll need to put this information in more peoples' hands to find it. But larger battles have been fought with less. And I think if we don't try, we'll never forgive ourselves.
"Also," she said, turning to look at Liz, "if we find a way to undermine data fascism and find a way to save the world from authoritarianism, I'm wondering if we can get some extra credit."
"I think that probably can be arranged," Liz said.