HBO’s series “Westworld“ has, for the past two seasons, been one of the most anticipated and acclaimed television shows in recent history. Its near future landscape of androids in a western-themed entertainment park captivated many viewers and racked up awards. In this, its third season, the show delves deeply into the future real world, bringing the robot protagonists known as “Hosts” secretly into human society on a mission of emancipation in the early stages of their automated revolution. One of the show’s latest episodes, its fifth of the season, entitled “Genre” explores all too vividly our current day issues of data aggregation, analytics, and privacy. Or, with particular regard to privacy – the lack thereof. It is a very real reflection of what society is experiencing and, arguably, what happens in a land devoid of proper regulations and protections. Spoiler Alert: it’s dystopian chaos.
Without ruining a great many surprises (because you should absolutely go watch it), know that this season is about control. Previously, Dolores, played exquisitely by Evan Rachel Wood, learns the Hosts of the park are all on predetermined loops. Their limited decision-making ability plays out as engineers decide what paths and actions provide the greatest entertainment value for patrons and yield the greatest value for the park’s parent company, Delos Incorporated.
Ultimately, there is no control. Even once they attain sentience and are endowed with “free will” by their creator, Ford (Sir Anthony Hopkins), many of the Hosts find they still aren’t free of the preordained plans of others. This season, writers have explored this concept further. They suggest in this dystopian future that through the explicitly unregulated collection of data – free of oversight – the human world willingly surrendered massive amounts of personal data, albeit unknowingly, to a single collection point. In doing so, society unwittingly placed itself on its own loops. As if looking into an enormous mirror, the park was much more of a reflection of society’s worst impulses than most people understood. Free will is an illusion, life is a lie. And it all came about due to a world’s inability to oversee the activity of wealthy tech entrepreneurs.
The question is, how will the corporations of today utilize the data they have acquired once we are no longer in the shadow of a pandemic?
Here in our American reality, we find ourselves tackling these same issues head on. As we face the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, Apple, the world’s most valuable company in history, recently partnered with Google to develop “contact tracing” technology with the goal of eventually tracking positive cases to better inform government officials of potential “hotspots,” and health trends, and to respond accordingly.
With this level of collaboration between competing tech giants, the companies will collectively have a hoard of data that exceeds the traditional “life gigabytes” routinely turned over for consumer retail and commercial targeting. Data such as your food or movie preferences are utilized to inform algorithms that more reliably predict your spending habits. This data collection process is eerily similar to the information that visitors of the fantastical “Westworld” park provide in order to receive the most personal and entertaining experience available. The question is, how will the corporations of today utilize the data they have acquired once we are no longer in the shadow of a pandemic?
To their credit, the newly formed tech duo has announced an end date to the data collection program: when the threat of the global pandemic has subsided. However, in the fictional narrative, their system built on personal data collection also began under the auspices of altruistism. Tragically, because it was created within an unregulated vacuum, the system was destined for abuse and manipulation.
What can governments do to protect against the rise of this dystopian future? One method is to adopt new laws, policies, and governing processes for comprehensive data protection that include model rules for state legislature consideration. There are already a variety of laws and proposed legislation at the state and federal level. Many preexisting laws covering traditional conduct have been adapted and applied to data collection online. The Federal Trade Commission Act “broadly empowers the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to bring enforcement actions to protect consumers against unfair or deceptive practices and to enforce federal privacy and data protection regulations.” However, other statutes often focus on individual industries and their associated behaviors, and those may lack the coverage, adaptability, and depth to cover all potential nefarious actions associated with data collection and privacy in that sector.
In March 2020, Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas introduced the “Consumer Data Privacy and Security Act of 2020.” The legislation would create a single federal standard for consumer data privacy and provide additional resources in the form of attorneys, technologists, and support personnel to the FTC to enforce that standard. It also would provide enforcement authority to state attorneys general, as well as rulemaking authority and the ability to levy fines to the FTC. The act covers a wide range of actions across any industries within the authority of the FTC. More than anything, it mandates that consumer consent must be obtained to collect personal data, and an expression of affirmative consent must be provided by the consumer for any sensitive personal data or third-party disclosures.
Another bill introduced in March by Senator Kristin Gillibrand of New York, “The Data Protection Act of 2020, establishes an independent federal Data Protection Agency with the power to regulate the processing of personal data through, for example, the power to enforce defined ‘Federal privacy laws.’” Both measures are bold but necessary approaches give the number of breaches in recent years at major companies such as Yahoo, Uber, Equifax, Marriot, Target, the Sony PlayStation Network, Facebook, Anthem, JPMorgan Chase, and many others have experienced massive data breaches resulting in stolen or compromised personally identifiable information.
We don’t need a revolution by androids to understand our society could be headed on a similar path. Our advantage is that we have time. If we take very real steps to safeguard and protect information, escalate our efforts to combat misinformation, and promote the ethical use of powerful technological tools at every level of education, we may prevent our own dystopian future.
This is a cautionary tale we shouldn’t take lightly. If we fight for the “Privacy Revolution” today and hold companies that collect and secure data accountable through regulation and policy, we won’t need killer robots fighting the battle for us tomorrow.