Column: data theft
By Simone van Dijk
In a suitcase under my bed are things from the past. Stuff I value and have kept all these years. Among them are my certificates and reports from my primary and secondary school. These certificates and reports are all handwritten. I have a version of these and the school may have kept a version of these too for some time. Over time, the versions from school were destroyed. Gone, unrecoverable.
Nothing about me is documented about the time between reports. Exactly how I performed on a Wednesday in November, how my mood was, what my mental or physical condition was, where I was, who I was with and what I was doing, is not known and cannot be recalled. Perhaps a testimony from a former teacher who remembers something about me, a specific event. But nothing can be traced back to a specific day, a specific time. Only my testimonials and reports remain. And only in case I decide to disclose their contents to someone will this information about me be revealed. Otherwise, it is not.
That is different now. Google is mass-providing public schools with Chromebooks (see Volkskrant, 1 November 2019, report on Google and primary education). A laptop that runs on Google's Chrome operating system and allows children to work on Google's online hard drive (cloud). Chromebooks are cheap and the software comes free. Therefore, selling them is not Google's core business. The Chromebooks are just a means of obtaining what Google really cares about. Data, preferably as much as possible.
Data is the oil of our times. Companies like Google are getting exorbitantly rich because they deal in data. Our data. Curiously, we seem willing to give away this so valuable data for free time and again. And not just our data, our children's data too.
Parents, teachers but also the government seem unaware of what is going on. Children leave digital traces via Chromebooks that can be used to predict and guide our children's behaviour. This data can be extracted directly from the learning results, but also from so-called 'residual data'. This is information such as what theme do you set as background, what colour buttons do you choose, how fast or how slow do you type, what spelling mistakes do you make, what is your location, who are your contacts, what does your voice sound like and what is your facial expression that can be filmed via the camera on the laptop.
All this data can be used to predict, among other things, our children's personality, their feelings, when they are vulnerable, when they are tired, when they worry, their sexual orientation and, ultimately, their political preferences. In addition, this information can be combined with data from classmates, siblings and data from parents. In this way, Google can also gain insight into what goes on within a family. You wouldn't normally divulge all this information just like that. And certainly not just share it with thousands of companies and people you don't know who they are and what they will do with this information about you.
All this data is stored and will never be 'not there' again. Everything our children do and think in their youth will be known forever. Not so much with them as with 'them', whoever they may be. A permanent record is kept and stored about our children.
Our children's behaviour can not only be predicted but also guided, manipulated. For instance, our children can be enticed to buy certain products and make political choices without feeling that they are being directed. Not only does this compromise our children's personal freedom, but also our democracy.
And to whom do we give that data? In case of Google Chromebooks to Google who can then resell it to hundreds or maybe thousands of companies. Companies with employees we don't know. We have no idea who it is sold to, what they do with it, what conclusions are drawn about our children and what consequences these may have for our children, now and in the future. Google claims that it does not resell this data. But even if this were true, you wouldn't want Google to hold this data about our children.
Through Google Chromebooks, we parents, schools, but also certainly the government are giving away all this valuable and sensitive information about our children for free and without any further thought. Information that we ourselves keep in a suitcase under our bed. Information that we ourselves decide whether to share with others.
We are depriving our children of the opportunity to later decide for themselves what they want to reveal about themselves. We are depriving them of the right to be able to make mistakes unseen. We are seriously jeopardising their right to freedom and democracy.
Therefore, there is not only a task for parents and schools to protect our children from this 'data robbery' (Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, NPO 2 VPRO Tegenlicht 'The great data robbery') to protect, but also for the government. After all, should we as a country want this so valuable and sensitive information of our future generation to be in the hands of Google and perhaps thousands of other companies or powers that we do not know who they are and what their intentions are?