Sunday, January 26, 2020

Owning your own information: How about a Constitutional Amendment?

Celebrities can sue you if you use their likeness or name for promotional purposes without permission, and normally, you must pay a fee to do so. And, you don't get to use that likeness or name again unless you pay again.

So, why shouldn't the law require companies and governments to get your permission to use your likeness—now called "facial recognition"—when they wish to exploit your identity for profit and/or surveillance purposes? In fact, why not require the government to demonstrate probable cause in front of a judge as to why it needs to gather biometric and other data on you and store it?

One hundred fifty-five years ago the United States abolished the right of one human to own another. The principle is that we own ourselves and no one should be able to take that ownership away. So, I'm asking this: If we own ourselves, does that not imply owning the information we need to maintain that ownership, in other words, to be a free person?

This is no idle question in the age of surveillance capitalism. Everywhere the key to controlling others has become controlling information related to them, and that information now includes your movements, your purchases, your habits (at work and at home), your current whereabouts, and anything and everything you put on the internet about yourself. In addition, anything you choose to monitor using "smart" technology will have the providers of such technology looking over your shoulder as you do.

So I'm thinking we in the United States might need a constitutional amendment that guarantees our right to own our information. And, citizens in other countries might wish to contemplate an equivalent guarantee. The internet giants, information brokers, advertisers and law enforcement agencies won't like such an amendment, and they will say that we can handle this problem with well-tailored laws. Of course, those laws so far have heavily favored each of the groups mentioned above as they have used their influence to steer the legislative process.

I write about this issue as a way of entering into a discussion about information and how it is used as opposed to what the technology industry promised us. Instead of empowering us, the information systems we have allowed the tech giants to create are designed to make us malleable to their wishes. The desire of those in power to manipulate and dominate others is as old as the human race. But in an age of supposed enlightenment and liberation, we humans as a whole have tried to counter that pattern.

We were told that the computer and now the internet would empower individuals to do amazing things with their creative abilities. There has been some of that. But as the internet has become dominated by private corporations whose sole objective is to increase profits and market share, the public has been subjected to unrelenting attempts to manipulate its behavior and habits.

The modern era of public persuasion began with Edward Bernays, the father of public relations. It was no accident that Bernays was a nephew to Sigmund Freud. Bernays realized that Freud's understanding of the human unconscious could be a valuable tool in manipulating audiences.

Later, Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders laid bare the manipulative techniques of Madison Avenue and political campaigns. Much of Packard's analysis flows from Bernays' first insights into what is called "depth psychology" in the service of selling both ideas and products.

Today, few people are surprised that advertisers and political professionals use techniques based on vulnerabilities revealed through Freud's work and that of his successors. This awareness, they believe, somehow shields them from the most recent variants of hidden persuasion.

But modern public relations professionals and tech company marketers who use "big data" (your data, actually) and algorithms have one very important thing in common: They know that the most effective way to manipulate you is to make sure that you are unaware that you are being manipulated.

The control over individuals offered by the modern world of communications—mobile, ubiquitous, addictive, and user-friendly—goes far beyond anything Bernays and Packard could have imagined. That control is often packaged in the form of "free" apps which are a gateway to "free" services (and in some cases, paid services and product purchases). But the "free" services are paid for with the massaging and sale of the data you produce by using the apps.

That is a fabulous feat of manipulation. You offer your information free of charge in exchange for services which have almost no marginal cost to the provider. The owners of these apps (or websites or sellers of "smart" devices) essentially get to do what would be illegal to do to a celebrity's identity; they get to sell your information over and over again to as many people as will pay for it. It's a very lucrative business with no upside for you—only relentless attempts to manipulate you further to buy something or do something that will put some profit into the pockets of those using the information.

We are seduced by the promise of speed and convenience. I am reminded of the caution offered by Robert Townsend, author of Up the Organization, a 1970 bestselling commentary on management with a humorous tone. If you don't have a good paper system for getting things done, Townsend opined, a computer "will just speed up the mess."

I think in many ways that's what we done with our internet and telecommunications systems. We've speeded up the mess without actually improving the quality of our lives very much—at least not in proportion to the downsides. Going faster isn't always equivalent to living better. And, when you are giving away your autonomy to some tech giant or advertiser or government agency that wants to track you, the speed and convenience you get from our modern systems may well not be worth it.

I don't think we have to pass a constitutional amendment in the United States or anywhere else to get started on taking back our autonomy. But that process may be painful at first. Opting out of systems that take more from you than they offer will seem like a withdrawal from the world. But, it will give you time to start creating a different world—one in which your life is not simply a part of someone's business plan or security protocol, but rather one that reallocates your time to the things that matter.

For most people that is the human relationships that sustain them and protect them. Ultimately, it is those relationships that ensure our happiness. Everything else is just secondary.

That doesn't mean I'm giving up on a constitutional amendment that no lobbyist or legislator can change. In fact, I think it would be a good start on the road back to human autonomy in the age of the internet.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at

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