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EditorialsUp Front 02/19

Up Front 02/19

Some time ago I wrote a short article about ways to combat algorithms, treating them as though they were a virus. It was written in the form of a spoof press release about helping people that had been neurologically manipulated by algorithms, and the names of scientists quoted were made up from characters in George Orwell’s 1984. As it happened, the article was too complicated and was consigned to the ‘maybe stick it on a blog one day’ file. The reason for writing it had stemmed from a conversation with a car insurance company where various people within the organisation couldn’t make sense of a quote that their computer had generated. It was totally illogical, and nobody could understand how the quote had been arrived at. However, after much investigation, the final comment was, ‘I’m sorry, but we have to stick to what the computer says.’ As we thunder down the road of leaving more and more important decisions to the power of technology—in systems that use data relying on common denominators and judgements made without any recourse to human intervention, or even investigation—it’s no surprise that some people want to roll back the clock. One example that was confirmed recently is the fact that profiling by social media companies can be done by simply gleaning information about the friends we keep. A study from the University of Adelaide in Australia and the University of Vermont in the US has found that, even where people have deleted their accounts, they can be profiled from the information that can be drawn from their friends’ posts. The researchers analysed the information content of over 30 million Twitter messages using information theory from mathematics and probability to test the predictability of individuals’ behaviour, based on their online posts. They showed that judgement about an individual could be up to 95% accurate based on data from their friends alone. One of the scientists, Dr Lewis Mitchell, likened the process to listening to a phone call but only hearing one of the two people involved—we can still glean a lot of information about the person we can’t hear. If we’re listening to the comments and interests of eight or nine people who are friends of the person we can’t hear, we are likely to learn a great deal about them. We’ve known for some time that internet activity is used to manipulate people, but the telephone analogy is interesting when you consider that telephone tapping is illegal.

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