Google has just released data on people’s movements, gathered from millions of mobile devices that use its software (e.g. Android, Google Maps etc) leading up to and during the COVID-19 lockdown in various countries. The data has been analysed here to show graphically how people spent their time between six location categories: homes; workplaces; parks; public transport stations; grocery shops and pharmacies; and retail and recreational locations.
The data shows how quickly people reacted to the instructions to lockdown. Here in the UK for example we see people reacted late but then strongly, with a rise of about 20-25% staying at home. This delay reflects the fact that lockdown began later, on March 23, in the UK though some people were already staying home before lockdown began.
What we see in the data provided by Google is likely to be only the start and, I suspect, a preview of how we may soon have to live. In the book Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari the chapter The Great Decoupling discusses how bioscience and computer science are conspiring to learn more about us than we know about ourselves and in the process destroy the “great liberal project” where we think that we have free-will and are able to make our own decisions about what we eat, who we marry and vote for in elections as well as what career path we choose etc, etc.
Harari asks what will happen when Google et al know more about us than we, or anyone else does? Facebook, for example, already purports to know more about us than our spouse by analysing as few as 300 of our ‘likes’. What if those machines who are watching over us (hopefully with “loving grace” but who knows) can offer us ‘advice’ on who we should vote for based on our previous four years comments and ‘likes’ on Facebook or recommend we should go and see a psychiatrist because of the somewhat erratic comments we have been making in emails to our friends or on Twitter?
The Google we see today, providing us with relatively benign data for us to analyse ourselves, is currently at the level of what Harari says is an ‘oracle’. It has the data and, with the right interpretation, we can use that data to provide us with information to make decisions. Exactly where we are now with coronavirus and this latest dataset.
The next stage is that of Google becoming an ‘agent’. You give Google an aim and it works out the best way to achieve that aim. Say, I want to lose two stone by next summer so I have the perfect beach ready body. Google knows all about my biometric data (they just bought Fitbit remember) as well as your predisposition for buying crisps and watching too much Netflix and comes up with a plan that will allow you to lose that weight provided you follow it.
Finally Google becomes ’sovereign’ and starts making those decisions for you. So maybe it checks your supermarket account and recommends removing those crisps from your shopping list and then, if you continue to ignore its advice it instructs your insurance company who bumps up your health insurance if you don’t.
At this point we ask who is in control. Google, Facebook etc own all that data but that data can be influenced (or hacked) to nudge us to do things we don’t realise. We already know how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to influence the voting behaviour (we’re looking at you Mr Cummings) in a few swing areas (for Brexit and the last US election). We have no idea how much of that was also being influenced by Russia.
I think humanity is rapidly approaching the point when we really need to be making some hard decisions about how much of our data, and the analysis of that data, we should allow Google, Facebook and Twitter to hold. Should we be starting to think the unthinkable and calling a halt to this ever growing mountain of data each of us willingly gives away for free? But, how do we do that when most of it is being kept and analysed by private companies or worse, by China and Russia?