Invasion of the privacy snatchers - TechCentral

Invasion of the privacy snatchers

alistair-fairweather-180It’s no secret that everyone from employers to educators to landlords scan social media profiles to assess applicants. In an age of radical openness, our online profiles often say more than we’d admit in an interview. But now a British start-up has made systematic invasion of privacy into a product.

The start-up in question is Score Assured. It has just launched its first product, Tenant Assured. Aimed at landlords, the product trawls through a potential tenant’s social profiles, runs the data through an algorithm, and compiles a dossier on the applicant.

You might wonder how Tenant Assured gains access to all this private data. Most people are savvy enough to lock down their privacy settings on platforms like Facebook and Instagram. But here’s the stroke of evil genius that makes the platform work: the potential landlord sends you an invitation to the platform compelling you to grant it full access to all your profiles.

But how many people will agree to this kind of wholesale violation of their privacy? A lot more than you might think, I fear. In cities where decent rental properties are scarce, landlords already wield a lot of power. If a condition of applying for your dream apartment is submitting to the social media equivalent of a cavity search, then you might just do it.

The other big concern is how accustomed people are to logging in with their social profiles. Many may not even realise the extent to which they are laying themselves bare until it is too late.

Once your data has been sucked into the system, you’re at the mercy of its algorithms. This computer code distils your entire online life into a handful of glib measurements. It decides whether characteristics like “open”, “conscientious” or “neurotic” apply to you. Yes, really.

Why should landlords trust that Tenant Assured’s algorithms will produce any kind of objective truth about a person?

Claiming to be able to accurately divine whether someone is neurotic or agreeable is pretty laughable. And what recourse do you have if that algorithm misinterprets a joke or a teenage prank and blackballs you?

Tenant Assured isn’t just creepy, it’s coercive and exploitative. I’m a landlord and I concede that this kind of data would be extremely compelling. But the whole enterprise reeks of predatory opportunism and bullying. The unequal power dynamic pretty much guarantees abuse and unethical profiling. I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole.

As you might expect, the founders of Score Assured have a different take. In an interview with The Washington Post, founder Steve Thornhill reassured the peons that “if you’re living a normal life, then, frankly, you have nothing to worry about”.

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Leaving aside the smugness dripping from that sentence, let’s remember that this is the exact argument made by defenders of America’s National Security Agency and Britain’s equivalent, GCHQ. Anyone who uses the same excuse as the most wayward branches of the global intelligence community should not be trusted, on principle. This isn’t a defence, it’s a smokescreen, and a lazy one at that.

At its core, Score Assured trades on fear. Its promotional video for Tenant Assured is packed with trigger words like “fraud” and “non-payment” and asks landlords: “Can you afford not to be tenant assured?”

Companies like Score Assured are like thieves at a birthday party

There’s a fine line between the power of online social networks to connect people and businesses, and the opportunity they offer for predatory and unethical invasions of privacy. Tenant Assured is far, far over that line.

All that said, there’s a good chance that the product will succeed. Greed and fear are strong motivators, and landlords are likely to flock to the platform. Even if the platform is wrong 10% of the time, the only people that lose are the tenants. And a good number of those tenants will take that chance. “People will give up their privacy to get something they want,” smirks Thornhill.

What’s truly terrifying is that Score Assured is planning other products for employers and loan providers. There’s a good chance that, unless we act, these business practices will become normalised.

Old-fashioned credit bureaus have been harvesting and sharing a nauseating amount of private data for decades. Let’s not invite these vultures into our social networks, please.

If I were the management of Facebook or LinkedIn, I would strongly consider banning or heavily restricting this kind of strip mining. It goes against everything those platforms claim to stand for: real human connections, free expression and community. Companies like Score Assured are like thieves at a birthday party. Don’t let them in.  — © 2016 NewsCentral Media

1 Comment

  1. Agreed.

    Unfortunately, this is just the beginning.

    Eventually the overwhelm will succeed, and become the new norm.