Out of control info? We can get practically any information we want by doing a simple search. And, social media and electronic records make it easier to get a hold of our personal info in part because it’s everywhere we need it. How is this a problem? This post explores this question and what we can do.

How is easy access to info a problem?

Well, it’s complicated. Consider the following. First, how many different images come to mind when you think of the phrase, “beautiful woman”? I see women who are young, old, bald, wearing a headscarf, thin, zaftig, of all races, nationalities, and lifestyles. Now, enter the phrase ‘beautiful woman’ into a search engine. Do the images you see on the screen match those you imagined? Mine don’t. I only see pictures of young, thin white women. I suspect few search engine results will match what comes to mind when using that phrase. Why?

Before answering, enter a second search, any search. Does the advertising that pops up on your screen reflect the beauty search you just entered? Mine do. I see ads for products to maintain, presumably, the look of a young, thin white woman. It makes me wonder what the skewed representations of beauty might mean for a child doing homework, a casting agency seeking models, or a corporation marketing products.

It’s like having an “if you like this, you’ll love that” button attached to… every move we make…

 This 2-part exercise can show how information we get is biased. And, it shows that what we reveal about ourselves, to get that biased information, can be used to personalize our future online experiences. It’s like having an “if you like this, you’ll love that” button (from Amazon.com) connected to everything we do, purchase, anyone we befriend, every move we make, every breath we take—but really, this is nothing to sing about.

How bad could it be?

A good deal of our personal and other information is online whether we put it there ourselves or not. Companies, government officials, politicians, and others mine that information or data. They can use what they learn to influence what we buy, where we travel, what we eat. You get the idea.

News unfolding about Cambridge Analytica, using info entered on Facebook to influence election votes, provides an extreme example of such practices. It’s like they’ve posted an invisible button that reads “since you like this, we’ll make sure you (get and) love that.”

Imagine teachers assigning personal essays on family, grading them, and then selling them to Ancestry.com.

 Scholars have begun to study how bias can lead to problems with uses of information. For example, check out Algorithms of Oppression with a brief video from its author.

How did this become a problem?

What if a teacher assigned a personal essay on family and graded them, only to have schools mine and sell those graded essays to Ancestry.com or Match.com. Such things just don’t happen–well, not in schools. Some checks and balances ensure our information gets used as intended. Banks, schools, health care agencies, employers, and libraries adhere to laws and practices that limit the use of personal information they gather.

Those who mine data maintain no credentials as teachers do. They complete no exam like those who practice law. Some adhere to professionally- or publicly-debated standards, but all librarians do. Others may work for companies that in some way value diversity or ethics. Still, others may even have diversity or ethical administrators on staff. But, the checks and balances we’ve set up for many institutions that manage significant amounts of personal info don’t apply to all who interact with our personal info? Could a lack of consistent safeguards be contributing to the problem?

How do we regain control?

If the lack of safeguards contributes to the problem, we could introduce more safeguards. Efforts to deal with historical war crimes advanced the dialog surrounding crimes against humanity and the need to restore trust in their wake. Increasingly today, we depend on online information whether required by law (like in medical institutions), wanting to patronize a business, or desiring to take part in some social activity. In this modern context, unethical uses of online personal info may equate to destroying the public’s trust. So, we could hold all who access our personal information to ethical and professional standards, in addition to laws, regarding its use.

Before considering another option, note that we’ve faced the problem of biased information and unintended uses of information before now. Library designs recognize that ways of organizing information can be biased. Librarians, with their master’s degrees, and scholars in that field deal with biased info by providing access to pro, con, and nuanced views of issues. After 9/11, we passed the Patriot Act. The act allows government officials to gather information about what residents’ actions with businesses, libraries, etc. but only for a specific purpose–to investigate terrorist acts. Both scenarios involve trained public professionals. Could we regain control by changing the education level or training of those allowed to work with our personal information? Or, does the problem more lie in the distinction between public and private services?

Finally, a growing number of communities have invested in municipal broadband and offer residents publicly-owned wifi along with gas, water, and other utilities. Setting up the infrastructure can be very expensive. The initial expense and other financial reasons moved more than a third of our states to ban municipal broadband. Still, some argue that this option could reduce problems caused by giving private corporations access to personal information.

Where do we go from here?

Time may reveal that these or other solutions emerge to positive ends. For now, it’s a good idea remain informed about possible abuses of personal info. And, keep in mind that ordinary people, with their own biases, are behind what is and is not presented online. And finally,  contact our elected officials to support changes you’d like to see.

As for me, for the time being, I continue to meditate as the best way to bring about change.