One thing is clear: we’re at a point in history where we need to be more aware of the potential for data abuse and the steps we can take to mitigate that risk. Data breaches and data abuse are still hitting the news headlines this year.
Data Abuse and Global Surveillance by rogue government or predatory corporation is a longtail topic in literature and movie like. Brand New World from Aldous Huxley, Orwell’s famous 1984 or movie like Matrix or Minority Report tackle the Data Collection and Global Surveillance subject, sometimes in ways that feel like a premonition of things to come. Let’s explore some recent shows and movies that cover the risk of personal data abuse and see what lesson can we draw from them.
Risk of personal data abuse in Real Life
It is important to know that data breaches and data abuse are growing in both frequency and severity, with new cases occurring all the time. In 2019, the World Economic Forum placed two cybersecurity concerns in its top 5 systemic risks to the world global stability, the three others being related to climate change and extreme weather. Massive data fraud and theft is among them.
In June 2022, a health care company experienced a data breach that exposed the data of approximately 2 million patients in the United States after hackers breached their network and stole data. In January 2021, the Chinese Social Media SocialArks leaked more than 300 millions individuals personal data due to a cloud misconfiguration. Or in october 2021, the game-oriented streaming platform Twitch suffered from a massive breach, with its source code stolen and the users salary exposed.
These alarming stats show that companies are not doing enough to protect their customers’ information and that customers don’t always do enough to protect themselves. You can’t control what others do with your information, but you can control how you use it. Be aware of the risks and make sure you’re taking steps to minimize those risks. Or what? What are those so-called risks ? That’s where art plays its role to enlight us from sometimes very abstract notions.
This British anthology series is all about exploring the potential consequences of the misuse of technology, and many of its episodes are rooted in data abuse. In the episode “U.S.S. Callister,” for example, a game designer uses stolen DNA to create clones of his colleagues. He then traps them in a simulated spaceship where he forces them to live out his fantasy of being a Starfleet captain. In “Metalhead,” a robo-dog has been programmed to kill and nothing else. In “Black Museum,” a woman is forced to relive her worst memory over and over again. And in “Crocodile,” a journalist uses a fabricated story to frame an opponent for murder. The message of Black Mirror is clear: technology can be used for great good, but it can also be used for great evil.
Black Mirror “Nosedive” and social credit score
The first episode of season 3, “Nosedive,” is about a social mobile application that allows people to rate one another depending on their interactions. The app tracks your behavior and gives people a score so that you can be ranked. Everything in life is based on this social score and conditioned the socioeconomic status : the place you can life in, the restaurant you can access, the car you can drive, the medical cares you can receive. By incidence, you are bond to interact with people of your status to keep your score going up. You can’t even choose who your friends are.
This episode can related to the social credit system enforced in China. But it also refers to the economic credit score in USA or the behavior people develop in Social Network. It is no science-fiction that our behavior, our qualities, are quantified and impacts our available choice in life.
Black Mirror “Arkangel” and helicopter parenting
The second episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season, “ArkAngel,” looks at an eye implant that allows parents to track childrens, see what they saw, hear what they say and censor materials of their choice. In the episode, a woman uses the implant to spy on her daughter and his friends, as she go through childhood and teenage.
ArkAngel pushes the helicopter parenting phenomenon to the next level, but it is a reality. Whatever the intention, some parents are in demand of intrusive technologies to monitor their child. From microchip implant to IOT tracker, this use of technology is related to the concept of Panopticon where people are under the constant impression to be watch. Orwell’s book 1984 refers to it. This feeling of permanent surveillance impact our behavior and can leads to psychological trauma.
The scariest part of this episode is that her actions are enabled by technology. The human part of her knows that what she’s doing is wrong, but the technology makes it easy for her to do it anyway.
Black Mirror “USS Callister” and informed consent before sharing data
Another episode of Black Mirror tackles the misuse of data. “USS Callister” stars Jesse Plemons, who plays the captain of an online multiplayer game. Plemons’s character presents himself as attractive and strong, but he’s actually insecure and a bit of a loser. Plemons’s character uses the DNA of the game’s other players to create digital clones of them. These clones are his co-workers, but they’re also his slaves. But what’s so important about this episode is that Plemons’s character doesn’t just steal the DNA from his co-workers. He forces them to give it up. In the end, the episode is about informed consent: the characters should have had the choice to say yes or no to being cloned in Plemons’ game.
The Net and data-driven manipulation
This 1995 American action thriller film depict a politician committing suicide after being informed to be positive for HIV. The main character is a system analyst for a software editor. She works remotely and she shares online all of her personal life. Targeted by a cyber terrorist group, they leverage her personal data to manipulate her, impersonate her and put her life down. She later find that the politician HIV test as been tampered.
This movie demonstrate the value of personal data for manipulation purpose. Altering the integrity of a medical record leads to a dead man. Analyzing the life of an internet user allows malicious people to take control of her life. In the hands of advertiser, it is not a secret that an intimate knowledge of a targeted persona is key to succeed. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is a striking example of data-driven mass population manipulation.
The Circle and privacy abandonment
The film’s premise is that your life is digitized and you are expected to share everything about your life. The company behind this is The Circle, a conglomerate that is essentially Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft all rolled into one. The scariest part of this movie is that it feels real. The Circle’s massive campus, complete with yoga classes and dog parks, is reminiscent of offices like Google’s campus. The Circle also has VR glasses that allow you to connect with other people. The scariest part is that The Circle is so desirable, that a woman gives up her privacy (and possibly her identity) to work there. The Circle is a cautionary tale that shows us the potential for technology to make us less human.
In this show, a computer hacker named Elliot becomes involved in a plot to bring down an evil corporation. While investigating the plot, he meets a mysterious man named Mr. Robot who claims that he can give Elliot the skills he needs to succeed. But Elliot ends up using his new skills for evil rather than good. He uses his power to hack into people’s computers and control their actions. He even uses his powers to assassinate a CEO.
The second season of Mr. Robot was released just as the Equifax data breach scandal was unfolding. With that in mind, the show’s themes of corporate greed and data abuse feel even more relevant. This show is about corporate greed and the potential for big corporations to abuse people’s data for profit.
Stranger Things, human selection and mind control
The first season of Stranger Things doesn’t feel like a warning about data abuse. It feels like a tribute to the ‘80s. But the season’s main villain, Dr. Martin Brenner, uses data from a government experiment on kids to further develop a machine that can open a portal to another dimension. He uses the data to decide which kids he should use and how he can control them. The government’s experimentation on kids is troubling enough, but Brenner’s use of this data makes it more sinister. He’s using the kids’ data without their consent and with no regard to the consequences.
Ready Player One and Corporate Metaverse
This movie follows a young man named Wade Watts. He lives in a dystopian world where most people spend their time online in a virtual reality game called the OASIS. When the OASIS’s founder dies, he leaves behind an Easter egg contest where the winner will inherit the company. Many people are competing for the prize by trying to find the clue hidden in the OASIS. Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones searching. Innovative Online Industries (IOI) is also searching for the clue. Their goal is to gain full control to push their advertising and monetization into this popular virtual world.
This movie shows how the OASIS has become so integrated in people’s lives that it is literally killing people. People are spending so much time in the game that they’re neglecting basic needs like food, water, and sleep. IOI uses an army of enslaved gamer to find the egg, mirroring the potential drift of the Corporate Metaverse, NFT and Web3 trend. It gives another flavor to Tim Cook warning “If its free, and if you are not payed correctly, you are the product”.
Lesson learned from TV shows and movies about personal data abuse
Compared to news coverage and headlines, it is very interesting that TV shows and movies do not emphasized that much data abuse coming for cybercrime. But they put the spotlight on corporate greed, abusive social behavior, authoritarian government or the good old human stupidity.
Personal Data scandals are common nowadays. They feel inevitable, but the best thing we can do is be informed. If you’re thinking about signing up for a new service, look at what data they’re asking for. And if they’re telling you how they’ll use it. If they won’t tell you what they’re using it for, don’t sign up for the service.
It’s up to us to make sure that our data is protected. But it is interesting to witness some corporation taking the wave of data privacy as a competitive advantage. While Meta (ex Facebook) has a long history of beating privacy, from stating that it is no longer a social norm or that it simply does not exist, other player such as Apple or Samsung promote their posture abundantly, making it a crucial strategy for their brand positioning.