[Forum] | Trump : A Resister’s Guide | Harper’s Magazine - Part 11
y Kate Crawford
For the past decade, you’ve told us that your products will change the world, and indeed they have. We carry tiny networked computers with us everywhere, we control “smart” home appliances at a remove, we communicate with our friends and family over online platforms, and now we are all part of the vast Muslim registry known as Facebook. Almost 80 percent of American internet users belong to the social network, and many of them happily offer up their religious affiliation. The faith of those who don’t, too, can be easily deduced with a little data-science magic; in 2013, a Cambridge University study accurately detected Muslims 82 percent of the time, using only their Facebook likes. The industry has only become better at individual targeting since then.
You’ve created simple, elegant tools that allow us to disseminate news in real time. Twitter, for example, is very good at this. It’s also a prodigious disinformation machine. Trolls, fake news, and hate speech thrived on the platform during the presidential campaign, and they show few signs of disappearing now. Twitter has likewise made it easier to efficiently map the networks of activists and political dissenters. For every proud hashtag — #BlackLivesMatter, #ShoutYourAbortion, the anti-deportation campaign #Not1More — there are data sets that reveal the identities of the “influencers” and “joiners” and offer a means of tracking, harassing, and silencing them.
You may intend to resist, but some requests will leave little room for refusal. Last year, the U.S. government forced Yahoo to scan all its customers’ incoming emails, allegedly to find a set of characters that were related to terrorist activity. Tracking emails is just the beginning, of course, and the FBI knows it. The most important encryption case to date hinged on the FBI’s demand that Apple create a bespoke operating system that would allow the government to intentionally undermine user security whenever it impeded an investigation. Apple won the fight, but that was when Obama was in office. Trump’s regime may pressure the technology sector to create back doors in all its products, widen surveillance, and weaken the security of every networked phone, vehicle, and thermostat.
There is precedent for technology companies assisting authoritarian regimes. In 1880, after watching a train conductor punch tickets, Herman Hollerith, a young employee of the U.S. Census Bureau, was inspired to design a punch-card system to catalogue human traits. The Hollerith Machine was used in the 1890 census to tabulate markers such as race, literacy level, gender, and country of origin. During the 1930s, the Third Reich used the same system, under the direction of a German subsidiary of International Business Machines, to identify Jews and other ethnic groups. Thomas J. Watson, IBM’s first president, received a medal from Hitler for his services. As Edwin Black recounts in IBM and the Holocaust, there was both profit and glory to be had in providing the computational services for rounding up the state’s undesirables. Within the decade, IBM served as the information subcontractor for the U.S. government’s Japanese-internment camps.
You, the software engineers and leaders of technology companies, face an enormous responsibility. You know better than anyone how best to protect the millions who have entrusted you with their data, and your knowledge gives you real power as civic actors. If you want to transform the world for the better, here is your moment. Inquire about how a platform will be used. Encrypt as much as you can. Oppose the type of data analysis that predicts people’s orientation, religion, and political preferences if they did not willingly offer that information. Reduce the quantity of personal information that is kept. And when the unreasonable demands come, the demands that would put activists, lawyers, journalists, and entire communities at risk, resist wherever you can. History also keeps a file.
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