Tracking technology and data analysis turns human beings into scores
As with every human interaction, businesses rely on trust to build relationships and make deals. Working out who you should trust is a complicated process – one which often involves hearsay, guesswork, and a fair amount of personal prejudice.
Perhaps the most psychologically powerful indicator of a person’s trustworthiness is our experience of dealing with them in the past. Rightly or wrongly, prior knowledge of a person’s actions inform our decisions. Gathering and analysing a person’s data, then, is one way of making a judgement about them. As technology seeps into the various layers of our lives, we have the capacity to collect more data on individuals, and thereby to make more decisions based on numerical scores. Could this eventually reduce a person’s entire life to a set of numbers?
From credit scores to social scores
In the 1950s, the first iteration of the credit score appeared – an assessment strategy for financial solvency which would flourish into a mainstay of the world’s financial systems. Today, if you want to apply for a mortgage or take out a loan, a credit score is one way of assessing whether or not you are likely to pay that money back. It is based on your personal data: whether you have used credit in the past, what kind of credit that was, and how long it took you to pay it back. With digitised records and modern technology, it is easy for financial institutions to access our credit histories and calculate our credit scores. Tracking and assessing individuals in this way is integral to the workings of the economy – it is an accepted practice for computers to take people as inputs, and turn them into numbers.
With the development of technology, it is now possible to track people’s lives to a higher level of detail and in more diverse ways. For example, black box insurance, otherwise known as telematics, records and assesses a motorist’s driving style and habits in order to build up a profile of the individual and determine how risky they are to insure. As the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow, this connectivity of cars will expand into our personal devices, assessing us as we go about our daily lives in the outside world or within the home.
Wearable technology will have the ability to track our biometric data – informing life insurers if we really do live as healthily as we claim. Lastly, in a move currently being explored by the government of China, we could also be allocated with social credit scores – numeric rankings which rate everything from our loyalty to the state, to the kind of consumer goods we buy, to the way we interact with our friends online. In a chilling vision of what the future might hold, citizens in China have already faced punishments thanks to poor social scores, including being barred from booking flights, excluded from higher education, or prevented from applying to jobs at state owned firms.
To track or not to track – a moral consideration
The extreme implications of tracking citizens raise serious questions around the ethics of surveillance technology. On the one hand, giving governments and businesses access to our data can result in streamlined, personalised services at a reduced cost. On the other hand, few people would contest that technology companies now hold a worrying amount of our data. Search providers know everything that we do online, social media sites have access to all of our personal information, and no organisation can guarantee that it stores our data in absolute security.
What’s more, it is unclear whether the gathering and analysis of our data really is the best way of making assessments about our trustworthiness. Although digital technology makes it possible to track us more effectively and build up more accurate pictures of us as individuals, any technological system holds inherent bias in its programming which could unfairly sway decisions. Further, we might question the very act of turning human interactions into concrete numerical figures. It is not necessarily fair or right to define our behaviour in black and white terms. The moral, social and experiential spheres of human life are full of grey areas which do not stand up to mathematical processing. Sometimes people’s pasts are not indicative of their future behaviour – we all make mistakes and have errors of judgement.
The implications for monitoring human activity and turning everything we do into a rating has – under the most extreme interpretation – worrying implications for free will. If all the major structures of our lives are determined by data, then this will influence how we make decisions. For example, if I know that in order to qualify for health insurance I will have to walk the recommended 10,000 steps per day, then I will do it. It will be good for my health, of course, but isn’t this just another method of control? The collection and analysis of data to turn people into scores quickly takes on dangerous connotations of a coercive, authoritarian state. This noted, we come to the following questions around our use of technology: what is the real value of our data, should we do more to protect it, and are we really right to usher in an age where everything is connected? Only time will tell.
Have you ever been negatively affected by the credit scoring system? Would you exchange your data for cheaper, more personalised products? Should we really strive for a future in which everything is connected?
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