It’s been over a year now since the world was left in shock by the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal. For the first time since the unstoppable meteoric rise of Facebook, we finally understood how precarious centralized data organization can be. In this age, data is a currency and whoever mines the most of it might as well control critical economic and political directions.

In this new economy, users are willing to trade their data for “free” online services even at their expense.

In fact, most people don’t fully know what they are giving up in exchange of free online services such as social networking, messaging, e-mail, search etc. This has inspired the “privacy” movement to reverse or try to force us to think about the new economics of the web that aren’t pegged on users’ data. While idealistic, the movement hasn’t offered plausible alternatives to the current status quo.

I am personally hooked to Google services that “UnGoogling” myself is now close to impossible.

China vs USA

During May 2019 the U.S government issued a ban on Chinese Telco and smartphone maker Huawei that forced Google to revoke its proprietary services from its partner (the ban has been temporarily withdrawn). The ban meant Google would not license its proprietary services such as Search, Play store, Maps, Gmail, Youtube etc to Huawei. Consequently future Huawei Smartphones won’t ship these proprietary Google Services.

Now this has sent a panic to both Huawei and its customers who most likely will prefer other Huawei smartphone alternatives going forward. The lesson is quite clear even though it will bewilder our traditional economic senses; data=currency.

Huawei smartphone users are happy to pay $800+ for the Huawei P30 pro, but what they are really paying for are the “Free” Google services with their personal data. Google is of course aware that the data they harvest from over 2 billion Android smartphones worldwide more than compensates for the Free or subsidized digital services they offer.

Users, politicians and governments do not really know how do deal with such situations because we don’t have sufficient precedents on how to regulate data. Unlike physical goods or property, data is not constrained by laws of physics; it can be nowhere and everywhere. It’s hard to audit. Ugandan government or any other government for that matter knows little about the data Google has about me.

So how do you regulate something like this?

Personal data concerns

However, what’s worrying is how automated algorithms, also known as Artificial Intelligence (AI) — not governments or even corporations themselves such as Google or Facebook — are increasingly taking charge of our personal data and making decisions around them.

When you watch a YouTube Video, an algorithm, not a Google employee is going to recommend the next Video you watch. You will be under the illusion that you chose to watch it out of personal will but in fact, an algorithm chose it for you. Likewise, the Facebook News Feed algorithm automatically chooses what shows up on your news feed based on historical data Facebook has, over time, collected about you.

We are still in the early stages of this data revolution.

The algorithms frankly still know very little about us; what you shop, what news you like, what music you listen to, which restaurant you prefer, how much you spend etc is trivia information. I don’t mind any corporation knowing this about me as long as it makes my life easier. The real game changer will be a fusion of information technology and biotech — that is when bits and bytes match and mix with atoms and molecules.

Up until now, the information we have been giving out about ourselves has been external as I mentioned above; news you read, videos you watch, restaurants or places you visited etc. Google does this by default until you instruct it NOT to. But what happens when Google gets internal data about you say for instance your blood group, your mood, what you are thinking, what makes you happy or sad?

It’s absurd to think that anyone would voluntarily upload this data to a third party right now. However, in the near future, corporations will create enough incentives that motivate us to give out this data in similar way we are already doing it with external data about ourselves.

The Apple watch series 4 for instance has an app and irregular rhythm notification feature can alert users about signs of atrial fibrillation (AFib). It’s for your own health benefits to this device and it’s probably to your peril not to have one.

Elon Musk’s Neuralink is developing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers. Instead of typing via keyboard, mouse or voice control, you could in the future simply think thoughts to get computers to get stuff done. These brain-machine interfaces invariably give machines data about ourselves that previous human-computer interfaces such as keyboards and mouse didn’t. And if you don’t use these new “ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces”, it might be akin to someone stuck to using typewriters instead of using modern computers.

What happens when AI has access to this internal data and starts making decisions for you?

This is the unknown unknown.

So the debate about data ownership and privacy are even more critical than ever. Initiatives like the EU’s data protection law GDPR are welcome, but not enough. I am particularly concerned that African Governments are still largely aloof on this issue.

Ultimately, me and you are the data sources and together, we wield more power than any corporation or government.

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