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Is the ‘Data Mafia’ here to stay?

Society
Photo of the cast for The Untouchables, 1956. (Credit: Public Domain)

You’ve been giving data away – or rather data has been taken from you – for longer than you have been alive.

Four months before you were born, you were papp’d by a midwife (after your parents agreed to the T’s and C’s, of course). She opened your file, took your info and from that moment, The Man With The Data knew you better than you knew yourself.

You probably wouldn’t have minded, even if you’d realized what was happening. It was for your own good: they needed to know things about you, so they could tailor their service to your needs. Sound familiar?

Data is the new oil. And like oil, it’s taken us a while to realize that it’s worth fighting for – and for some, maybe even dying for. How long until the Stop the War Coalition are stood outside Downing Street screaming that a foreign war was ‘really about the data’?

The first guy to strike oil went home and washed the black gook off his hands. And the first guy to go for gold with data moaned about the external hard drives he needed.

Like oil, data is only valuable because of what it can be used for. And it’s valuable because the things it is used for are so important: oil lets you fly planes, sail ships and drive cars. But data lets you read people’s minds.

The only difference is, data will hold its value a lot better than oil in a century’s time. And we are only beginning to understand how powerful it is.

I think we all knew what was happening. We knew those T’s & C’s didn’t need to be longer than War and Peace, and less readable than Ulysses (I have never read a T’s & C’s nor have I ever read either of those books). But what’s the alternative? Live without Facebook? Live without car insurance? Live without ever buying a train ticket? To live without living?

The data mafia have been making us offers we can’t refuse. And we’ve all taken the omerta.

There are a few people who are genuinely concerned about privacy – and (with some celebrity exceptions) they seem to be the people whose data no-one is interested in. I’ve personally never seen a billionaire join a privacy watchdog and pop up on Channel 4 News having a passionate chat with Jon Snow. The rich get more out of the deal than they lose. And they have the staff to insulate themselves from the ads, the fake familiarity, the creeping paranoia of a world that appears to adapt to your every thought – sometimes before you think it.

‘Do I want a new coffee machine?’ ‘Do I need a new coffee machine?’ ‘They keep showing me ads for new coffee machines... I must have Googled “best coffee machine” yesterday.’ ‘Or did I click on a coffee machine on those super-relevant Amazon suggestions?’ ‘Or was I talking to my friend about this at Starbucks?’ ‘Did Siri grass me up?’ ‘Do I even like coffee?’ ‘Who am I even?’

And it all started with an ultrasound. It was for your own good.

Omar Hamdi is a comedian, TV host and writer.

New Internationalist issue 514 magazine cover This article is from the July-August 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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