Book Review: Good Data by Sam Gilbert

by @edent | # # # # | 3 comments | Read ~114 times.

Book cover of overlapping circles.
This is a Bad Book. It is probably the most profoundly disturbing book I’ve read about the misuse of personal data. Not because it exposes the horrors of algorithmic harassment and discrimination, but because it joyfully revels in them.

The book’s central thesis is that slurping up personal data, without explicit permission, and using that information to target people is a good thing.

While books like The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and Privacy is Power are deep, scholarly works which investigate the way we are being abused by data brokers, Good Data is a little more than an obsequious love letter to Facebook. It is charmingly written, and superficially attractive, but contains no real research other than personal anecdotes.

Its arguments against Surveillance Capitalism can be summed up thusly: how bad can it really be if it made me a lot of money?

The author argues that Facebook’s targeting is amazingly powerful while simultaneously claiming that the fears around its power are overblown. Apparently the rampant psychological targeting is perfectly fine – because it is done in aggregate, rather than individuals! He even makes a distasteful comparison claiming that users “donating” their data to megacorporations is morally equivalent to people donating their organs… I really don’t know where to begin with that!

There is a reasonably good section on using search data to look for hidden business opportunities. If you can find a bunch of search results which have no obvious conclusion, you can start a business satisfying those unfulfilled desires. But the author seems to think it is his god-given right to get that data – bemoaning the fact that privacy advocates shuttered his source of customer intelligence.

There is an almost wilful misunderstanding of why users value privacy, wrapped up in a breathless paean to how Facebook made the author rich by targetting disabled people.

There’s a basic introduction to Bentham’s panopticon. Apparently Facebook isn’t a panopticon because you can also look at Zuckerberg’s page and see what he has liked. Completely ignoring that Zuck’s page is highly curated and you can’t look at the pages of the countless FB engineers who’ve made their pages private.

Oh, and because we can target Zuck with an advert (if we have the money) we should accept his company targeting us. It is a strange and contradictory argument.

The author’s naïve worship of all things Zuck is evident in a later rambling chapter about “Zuckian Liberalism”.
Apparently all Zuck wants is for the world to be free and happy, man! While essentially ignoring the true Zuck Doctrine “What’s good for Facebook’s stock price is good for the world.”

The book glosses over the ethnic slaughter in Burma, which was amplified by Facebook and claims it is just “an engineering problem waiting to be solved.”

I’ll be honest. The book is pretty hard to stomach. In a section praising the power of predictive policing, the author appears ignorant of algorithmic oppression – instead treating life-or-death decision making as little more than a customer segmentation exercise. A later chapter briefly covers ethical issues but quickly descends into a GCSE level run through Kant, the Trolley Problem, and Aristotle. It then concludes with the “radical” idea that big tech firms should make their data openly available to help fight big problems. And, coincidentally, help advertisers.

The publisher of the book praises its deliberately contrarian position:

“Flying in the face of much of the current doom-laden opinion and publishing about our digital world, he’s setting up a vital debate for our futures. And who doesn’t want to read something optimistic right now?”

But it is not optimistic. It presents a dystopian nightmare where shady data brokers get fabulously wealthy from pilfering your innermost secrets and using them against you.

The only reason to read this book is to understand how some people want to steal your data, abuse your rights, and profit handsomely from it – while painting themselves as moral saviours.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Good Data by Sam Gilbert

  1. I reckon Zuckerberg has 20 VPNs bouncing his traffic through tor and only ever reads things under a blanket

  2. @EdentThat’s just awful. I have no words for my opinion of the author or the publisher like this. All I can say is that it sounds like we have a clear illustration for the kinda person who thinks that this is a good thing. It helps to know your enemy.

  3. @onepict @Edent I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it already, but Helen Nissenbaums “Privacy in Context” is one of the few books that tries to honestly deal with the idea of data collection as a social good. Prose as dry as a packet of silica gel, but thorough.

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