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The Man Who Didn’t Exist

Many years ago I knew a guy in Glasgow who claimed to have a brother who ‘didn’t exist’. This wasn’t in the literal or existential sense, it was in the sense that he wasn’t known to the tax or national insurance agencies, wasn’t on the electoral register and didn’t have a registered address for council tax etc. He lived entirely in the cash economy. His line of work was buying flats for cash, spraying everything inside white to cover a multitude of sins and them letting them for cash. I wonder where he is now and how he is faring in the digital economy where it seems everything is known and the prospect of ‘not existing’ is remote unless you have no mobile phone, everything is by word of mouth, payments are made in cash and communications are made by handwritten note.

Social network diagram author DarwinPeacock, Maklaan

Social network diagram author DarwinPeacock, Maklaan

The ‘scandal’ of the misuse of personal data by Cambridge Analytica has suddenly brought the issue of data privacy into focus. The political consultancy firm ‘harvested’ data about tens of millions of Facebook users by using personality quizzes to build up psychological profiles which were then used for bespoke political advertising. Facebook has tried to look like the innocent victim of data theft but it is only an extension of the way Facebook itself makes its millions – by building up individual psychological profiles to sell to advertisers to create bespoke targeted content.

Facebook’s data gathering is probably just the tip of the iceberg. A recent article in Bloomberg about the data mining company ‘Palantir’ entitled ‘Palantir Knows Everything About You’ is quite scary. It describes how tiny pieces of the seemingly unimportant data that we unthinkingly give away can be assembled into a secret digital dossier of our life.

No amount of guarantees will ever convince me that data stored by others is secure. My assumption has always been that any data that I ‘ping off’ or enter anywhere is liable to get into unknown hands. If I ever want to do anything subversive I’ll take a leaf out of the book of the brother of the guy in Glasgow.

Iain Miller