Tech giants like Facebook are becoming the new global centres of power with the current political elite barely aware of the dangers posed by private data ownership, according to one of the world’s most high profile historians.
Yuval Harari called on the public to exercise their right to protect their personal data online and make radical new “political choices” following the news that Facebook allowed 50 million users’ personal information to be used by a private consultancy to target voters.
Speaking to a select audience of journalists – including Iona Bain from the Young Money Blog – Professor Harari said: “Whoever controls all these vast streams of information will effectively be the real government. Different countries may legislate in different ways, perhaps with China nationalising its big databanks and monitoring the movement of information.
“And maybe in Western Europe and North America, [control of data] will stay with the corporations, which will become the main source of power. If there are systems that know everything about you, and can therefore also manipulate you in a million ways, then they will be the ones who really control your life. And it can control who you vote for in elections.
“So even if there is a theoretical separation between Facebook and the government, Facebook can get whoever it wants elected.”
Facebook’s share price tumbled by 5 per cent on Monday, wiping $25 billion off the company’s value, following media revelations that British consultancy Cambridge Analytica improperly used data harvested from Facebook’s system to help political campaigns influence key demographics in recent elections. The founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, was heavily criticised after taking four days to issue an apology for a “breach of trust”.
Professor Harari, the author of international bestsellers Homo Sapiens and Homo Deus, said he didn’t know how much Cambridge Analytica’s involvement with Facebook had made a difference in recent elections, but said it was “definitely plausible” that in another five years’ time, political campaigners would routinely use sites like Facebook to “press the emotional buttons of different people”.
He said: “In the 20th century, politicians had to work based on broad statistics and on the lowest common denominator. Someone like Hitler wanted to make people fearful, but he cannot tailor his speeches to individuals. He makes one speech on the radio and everybody hears the same speech.
Iona from the Young Money Blog asked him if resistance to individual sites was “futile”, given the far-reaching harvesting of data online today. Professor Harari said the public “can’t stop technological progress” but that they have options, adding that he personally didn’t own a Facebook account or a smartphone.
Pointing to his team, however, Professor Harari quipped: “Because I have people who have smartphones, not having one has become the new status symbol. If you’re really important, you don’t have a smartphone!”
When asked by Iona if data ownership was an “all-or-nothing” affair, Professor Harari said: “There are many jobs today which you can’t get if you don’t have a smartphone because for instance you have to constantly access your email account. Many of us don’t have a choice about that, but we have two kinds of choice – one is about our personal actions. How much data do we share online? And we have political choices. The problem is that [data protection] is not yet a big enough political issue.
“If you think about major divisions politically in the UK, so we are still working with 20th century models of right vs left, socialism vs capitalism, bigger welfare state vs smaller welfare state – all these questions…are becoming less important in the 21st century because there are new issues. And these are not really part of the political debate so far. What’s the big difference between the Labour party and Conservative Party when it comes to data? It’s hard to say, different politicians in both camps have different views.”
Professor Harari said the new age of data could also see traditional forms of money “losing their meaning”.
“Most transactions in the world don’t involve an exchange of money – certainly not dollars, euros or pounds – it only involves an exchange of information. So maybe we have to rethink taxation. It might become irrelevant to tax money, because so little of it is moving around, and governments, if they want to stay in business, will have to start inventing new taxes – such as a tax on information.
Referring to the Chinese government’s efforts to introduce a “social credit” system, where citizens’ are rewarded for certain behaviours with points that convert into discounts or free access to facilities, Professor Harari said: “If the main source of trust in the system is no longer how much money you have in the bank, but how highly you score on a universal points system, then we need to completely rethink the whole system of trust and value.”
Professor Harari had previously been speaking at the 150th anniversary of F&C Investment Trust at the Guildhall in the City of London yesterday. Iona was digital host for the event, which saw Professor Harari and gen Y expert Eliza Filby address a 300-strong audience on the future of humankind and how to tackle the needs of “millennial” consumers today.
I have the best job. I got to attend a roundtable chat w @harari_yuval & fab financial writers like @MerrynSW & @iancowie this PM. Now hearing former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb give his thoughts at #FCIT150 dinner (though I don’t agree w all he says…) blog coming! pic.twitter.com/e2vpYv9HTw
— Iona Bain (@ionayoungmoney) March 21, 2018