Big Tech is becoming Big Brother: a leviathan out of control

With mounting influence over what we do, see, and even think, the technology giants are changing the world. It may not be long before the sector eclipses governments and rules our lives, says Dominic Frisby

Big tech is big brother

Shortly before the pandemic, I went to a conference where a speaker, to the surprise of many, began outlining the latest developments in sex technology. Smart vibrators are now a thing, apparently. So are oral sex simulators. Both types of devices employ machine learning so that they constantly improve the service they deliver. This is data taken from the most intimate areas of life. Tech is finding applications in fields never before thought of as tech. 

Smart contact lenses will help you navigate computer screens – and data will be extracted from everything you see. Microphones embedded in your molars will help you communicate and every word you say will be recorded and processed. You might be recommended a cough sweet if you’re sounding croaky, or, if you are sounding low, somebody might try to sell you something. But your “appropriate speech” could be monitored too. 

A chip embedded in your hand will enable you to pass through security barriers, to travel on public transport and even to make purchases, and data will be extracted from everywhere you go and everything you buy. Chips in other parts of your body will monitor your heartbeat, breathing or blood pressure. Data will be taken and sent to your doctor or insurer, where it will be compared with information from their other patients. There will be sensors in your clothes tracking anything from your temperature to your comfort levels. You might even receive rewards for wearing those clothes in certain situations. There will even be neural sensors connected to your brain, which will extract data from your thoughts.

It is a recurrent theme of the detective thriller that you learn about a suspect from their rubbish. Smart bins will monitor that too. There will be sensors everywhere in your house: in your bed, your bathroom, your kitchen and sitting room. A robot companion with high artificial emotional intelligence will keep you company. It will take care of your cleaning and home security too. As it does so, everything will be watched. 

You have no secrets

Already your social-media activity is captured and recorded. Your online searches, which perhaps reveal as much about you as anything, have already been stored. Google keeps a record of all your activity. It knows more about you than any spiritual leader ever could. Gmail knows the emails you draft but do not send: what you thought, but decided not to say. Even your darkest fantasies acted out in augmented or virtual reality (AR or VR) will have data extracted from them.

There will be sensors in your means of transport and at your places of work too. Cities will have sensors of some kind everywhere, in both private and public spaces. They will be in the lamps that light the streets, the lights that guide the traffic and the devices monitoring the air. Everywhere you go, everything you say, everything you do, asleep or awake, in the real world or the virtual, even what you think will be scrutinised in some way and have some kind of data extracted. The data is cleaned, organised and processed into information, which is then analysed and interpreted into knowledge. Machines will constantly be sharing information with each other in an internet of things (IoT), using 5G-network systems that are faster than ever. By 2025 over 75 billion devices will be connected to the internet. 

Our lives will be laid bare, even before those to whom we are not accountable. This data will be used to quantify you, to influence you, to control you and to rank you. It will affect decisions made about you: the jobs you are offered, the loan deals you qualify for, the price of insurance you must pay, the level of service you can secure. Everything will be rateable. 

Tech will make informed predictions about you. They will include when you are likely to die, or become ill; how well you will do a job; how successful you will be; how faithful you are likely to be to your spouse; how inclined you are to commit a crime; how much money you could earn; and whether you might go bankrupt or commit tax fraud. Accurate profiles can be built using qualitative methods such as psychographics. Platforms will not necessarily treat people equally: those with the “right” qualities will get better treatment than those without.

Machine learning, one company claims, can already predict if a person is a criminal with 90% accuracy using a single photograph of their face. It can predict crime on the basis of circumstantial evidence. The moral implications of predictive probability in fighting crime are considerable. Will people still be presumed innocent if the data suggests otherwise?

Guard your reputation with your life

Your online reputation will be everything. “If you knew that every journey, purchase, personal message, political utterance or act of rebellion might be captured and saved forever, and then used to determine your life chances, would you behave the same way?” asks tech writer Jamie Susskind. When it comes to guiding behaviour, tech is superseding our laws and our social and moral codes. The more you know about someone the easier is it to influence them.

This all has a disciplinary side to it. China already closely monitors its 1.4 billion citizens. Algorithms rank them on their behaviour, issuing rewards or punishments where appropriate. Citizens act in certain ways to get their score up. Not all governments will go down this route, but we are still beholden to the platforms we use.

We will be governed not so much by the law of the land but by the rules of the platform, though often the two will inform each other. The ethical decisions, which determine our future, will be made less by elected politicians, theologians or philosophers and more by those who write code. 

Take the driverless car. In the event of a crash, do you hit the pedestrians or drive into a wall and risk your own life? For now, you make such split-second decisions yourself. The driverless car will have such decisions embedded in its code. The Moral Machine project has conducted an online survey of 40 million people in 223 countries to gauge public opinion. It is generally agreed that cars should aim to save the largest number of lives, prioritising the young. In some countries there is a preference for saving women over the young; in others, law-abiding pedestrians over jaywalkers. In some states decisions are more controversial: the healthy are more favoured than the obese, the executive takes precedence over a homeless person. 

How will such decisions get made? By parliamentary representatives, by coders, or by public votes and surveys? If code is predicated on public opinion, as seems most likely, again we see a traditional parliamentary process undermined by tech. This is a major change to the way decisions are taken.

Code, rather than law, will determine what you can and cannot do. At present the law works as a deterrent. If you commit an offence you risk a punishment. In future, you will not be able to break the law because the code will not allow it. You will not be able to speed on the motorway or park illegally because the code in the vehicle will not allow it. If a law-enforcement officer flags you down, you will not be able to drive away because your car will be programmed to stop. 

You will not be able to skip fares on the bus, because automated payments will be taken from your wallet as soon as you get on. Fines too will automatically be taken from your wallet if you break the law in some way. The doctor will not be able to proceed in a negligent manner: the code in his equipment means it will not function unless certain protocols are followed. Already you cannot say certain things on social-media platforms, because there are blocks preventing such utterances. Those who questioned the government’s reaction to Covid-19 last year were quickly silenced. You lose access to that platform altogether. The reputational damage of unacceptable utterances, even if they occurred in a different context years ago, affects your prospects. 

Betrayed by a pacemaker 

Digital technology will increasingly be used as evidence. Your whereabouts at any moment will be known, as will what you were doing. A man from Ohio was charged with arson because the readings from his pacemaker were not consistent with the increased heartbeat he would have had if his story about waking up to discover a fire were true.

Machines can already predict the outcome of litigation with greater accuracy than humans. Ebay’s digital-dispute resolution, for instance, resolves 60 million commercial disagreements every year, three times the number filed in US courts. Similar systems will inevitably be incorporated into law to lighten the load of overburdened courts. Just as the written word and the printing press changed the way the laws of the land operated, code, the language of the future, will do the same.

Tech will determine what you perceive and thus your opinion. This might occur because algorithms suggest books or videos to you, but there is a darker side. Tech will use its own powerful platforms to lobby and influence public opinion in favour of its own business interests. Google may not operate piracy sites, but its search engine is the main means by which online piracy sites are discovered. 

In 2012 it campaigned against America’s Stop Online Piracy Act and on the Google homepage it encouraged users to vote against it. In just 24 hours 1.8 billion people saw the message “Tell congress: don’t censor the web”. Congress was bombarded by campaigners. Legislators were held captive.

With Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all banning Donald Trump, we already see tech taking political sides. In the future, augmented reality (AR) filters (computer-generated effects superimposed on real-life images) could be used to ensure you perceive certain politicians in an unflattering way. 

Liberating – but a threat to liberty

Tech may be enabling us to do thousands of things we couldn’t previously do. As such it is a tremendously liberating force, but it is also growing extraordinarily powerful and becoming an enormous threat to individual liberty and privacy. Its power could soon eclipse that of governments, if it hasn’t already. 

The combined market value of Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Facebook already exceeds the GDP of every nation on earth except China and the US. These companies will outweigh even those two titans within a decade or so. The power dynamic in society is changing. The conflict is not so much tech versus human, as humans who control tech against those that don’t. 

Large tech companies operate in the interests of their management and owners. Government, at least in theory, exists for its people. Yet here is the paradox. The tech company aims for market share: to get more users. To do that it gives users the best possible service. The service people get from tech is often better than what they receive from government. From healthcare to transport to education to crime and social order, tech is bettering state systems. In many cases, tech is free; the only “tax” you must pay is your data. Perhaps tech is the better governor? 

For now, though, talk of tech eclipsing governments is premature. They both need each other. Tech helps the government enforce its laws, collect its taxes, grow its economies and pursue its agenda. Big Tech needs government for its legitimacy. The two are working together. This is the emerging political balance.

Should the tech giants be broken up?

With Google’s 86% share of global searches or Facebook’s 66% share of social media, there is a strong case for both to be broken up. With the threat of anti-trust and privacy regulation on the horizon, Google spent more on lobbying in the US last year than any other company. No doubt such logic was behind Facebook’s hiring of former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to be its “head of global affairs and communications”. Compliance is, generally, the way to stay onside. 

Google tends to comply with government requests for information, reporting suspicious activity. Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube have their combined initiative, the Global Internet Forum, to counter terrorism. Following years of criticism that they had failed to block extremists on their platforms, Twitter, Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify then all acted within days of each other to ban the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. In the UK, media personality Katie Hopkins and Donald Trump are among those banned from Twitter. All had huge followings, which were good for these companies’ business. The decision to ban them from the platform was surely taken for political reasons. 

Big Tech will not always comply, at least not publicly. After the San Bernardino mass shooting in 2015, for example, the FBI demanded Apple’s assistance to unlock one of the killer’s phones. Apple said it didn’t have the means. The FBI demanded it write the necessary code to enable it to do so. Apple declined. 

The issue was to be taken to court in what would likely be, because of the precedent it would set, a landmark case. The day before the hearing, the FBI said it had found a third party to assist in unlocking the iPhone and obtained a delay. A week later the FBI announced it had unlocked the phone and the case was dropped. What really happened?

The firms, which control the technologies of power, are growing in power. They affect our ability to think, speak and travel, not to mention democratic processes and justice. For now Big Tech and the big state are allied. But how long before one supersedes the other?

What to buy now

The moral implications of this theme are so profound that it is not necessarily a trend one would want to “get exposure to”, to use the typical investors’ parlance. The obvious way to “play it”, however, and my stomach curdles as I say that, is to buy tech. 

Tech is, as we know, bafflingly overvalued, but it is has been bafflingly overvalued, at least to traditional value investors, for years. The trend is up and there is no reason it can’t get more bafflingly overvalued. The scalability of digital technology, the quick returns it offers and hence the capital it attracts mean the sector is in a virtuous circle.

The obvious place to start is with the big guns. Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), for example, owns me. I have an iMac and MacBook Air, and an iPhone. If I’m not looking at one of them, I’m looking at the other. Apple knows everything there is to know about me. It knows more about my children than I do. 

Google’s parent company Alphabet (Nasdaq: GOOGL), thanks to my extensive use of Gmail, its search engine and its maps, knows pretty much everything that Apple knows and more. And Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN), knows over 50% of my spending habits. To compound matters I have an Amazon credit card. It makes sense to own these companies, therefore, and get some payback.

You might think that Google, Amazon, Apple or Facebook have had their day. No tech lasts forever and it may be that some new tech is on its way that is going to supersede the giants. 

In that case, rather than buy those individual firms, buy the Nasdaq. If one company falters you’ll almost certainly be invested in whatever is eclipsing it. The UK-listed Invesco Nasdaq-100 UCITS ETF (LSE: EQQQ) is a sterling-denominated exchange-traded fund that will give you the necessary exposure.

Funds with a good record in tech include the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust (LSE: SMT), Polar Capital Technology (LSE: PCT) and Allianz Technology (LSE: ATTL) investment trusts.

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