Biometric data are about personal integrity

Over and over again, our biometric data – unique characteristics of our body – are being collected by institutions and companies. That may become quite dangerous for the integrity of us as a person.

Change your password regularly is one good piece of advice in the online world. Indeed, stolen passwords are worth nothing if you change them.

However, when body characteristics become passwords, changing them is not possible. Many computers and smartphones allow access with fingerprint, voice, or face recognition. That feels safe, because each is unique. Access to some labs is impossible without an iris scan. As long as the biometric data remain in the device, there is not a big problem.

Public authorities know our face. The picture on the ID-card or passport is being stored – somewhere – to produce the card or the passport. In Belgium since the end of 2020, it is mandatory to give two fingerprints at the renewal of the ID-card. Facial recognition is being deployed on a massive scale by police and law enforcement. Some institutions and companies dream about scanning the iris e.g. in airports because it is more accurate and unique than fingerprints and faces. Amazon, Apple, and Google know the voice of the users through their home assistants. Voice patterns for sure end up in their databases – the same way they store anything else they can put their hands on. And of course, authorities are interested in DNA, not just of criminals, but of every person.

Face, fingerprints, iris, voice, DNA. Don´t count me in. For all the possibilities within my reach, I will not give them willingly.

Security, crime fighting – that is the sales pitch.

In that rhetoric, you never hear about the loss of integrity.

In these plans and projects, you never hear about the slippery slope towards totalitarian surveillance.

You never hear them say that we become suspects by default. De foundation of the rule of law is being turned upside down. Instead of innocent until guilt is proven, we are turned into suspects until innocence is proven.

That is what this blog is about.

The right to be forgotten. The right to be innocent. The right to own our data.

The right to our personal integrity.

To be continued.

Yes, but I read that…

When in 2012 CERN in Geneva announced to prove the existence of the Higgs boson, The Economist published a supplement dedicated to that elementary particle and the unique physics research centre called CERN. Above all, CERN is unique, The Economist wrote, because it is one of the rare places where people are prepared to change their opinion when confronted with facts.

Every now and then, we all tend only to hear what we want to hear. Only so see what we want to see. “All lies and jest. Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” Simon and Garfunkel in their song “The Boxer” (1970). We filter away inconvenient information. Pride, stubbornness, indifference, against all better knowledge, pure necessity – what have you.

It gets different when we willingly go and search information to confirm our opinion. Perfectly all right if we are prepared to tweak our opinion when finding other facts. Not so right if we ignore what does not fit our purpose. Then confirmation bias kicks in. Selectively search and store information. Selective memory. Selective interpretation. Or the tendency to play games with truth, open discussion, and open mind in order to stick with the pre-set opinion.

Here is the pattern: I get better at detecting people who for their information about the pandemic only read Facebook.

Confirmation bias occurs in all circles: political, societal, economical, even in scientific and academic circles. In our private lives, fair chance that we know someone who wants to confirm their righteous opinion at all costs.

Very human, all that. Until the algorithms enter the scene. Commercial search engines (in practice, there is one dominant) present their results aimed in the first place at the person who searches instead of aimed at the searched subject. And the big search engine digs up a suggestion list based on what other people frequently search while the search words are being typed. Suggestions that often are short-cuts to disinformation.

Social media (just a few are dominant; I name primarily Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram) select what you will see based on the thousands of characteristics and data they have on you. Algorithms define your interest areas based on what you read, watched, liked, or shared previously, and on what your friends read, watch, like and share.

Problem: nobody gets to know how these algorithms work. A little insight in how it all started is given in the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. We now know for sure though after many studies and reports that the algorithms are made to confirm opinions and send people off to more extreme and sensational information or disinformation. Funny pictures, memes and videoclips go viral in an exponential curve (the analogy with that other viral is intentional). Hate messages, conspiracy theories, extreme ideas, and denial of universal truths are fuelled by black-box algorithms. The membership of the Flat Earth Society, e.g., is still growing.

At the same time, social media are becoming the prime source of information and daily news for a growing number of people. Too often, they are information sources without editorial control, without fact checking, unfiltered. The ‘traditional media’ feel an unprecedented commercial pressure because of their dependence on advertising income of which three quarters now goes to just two American companies.

Only ad-free independent news outlets such as Apache (BE), Médiapart (FR), De Correpondent (NL), The Bureau of Investigation (UK), The Intercept (US), and many more pursue investigative and truthful journalism to the full extent often with limited means for a growing but still limited audience.

There is nothing innocent about the information flow anymore. The confirmation bias is being organised, is being constructed. With addictive algorithms and without any respect for truth or human rights, information is being moulded into disinformation and then distributed virally, automatically. Hardly any opportunity or possibility for repair or rectification. Fake news, until the trust in news has been undermined entirely.

It is not about the sometimes-charming stubbornness of the person seeking confirmation for their own righteousness anymore – I wish it were that simple. It is difficult to have an open mind if you do not even know how you are being manipulated.

Since the pandemic changed our lives, our information, our contacts, and our conversations, I slowly detect a new pattern. More observations would be needed and documented to make it representative and scientific – not my ambition.

Here is the pattern: I get better at detecting people who for their information about the pandemic only read Facebook. People who at some point interrupt and say, for instance, “yes, but I also read that China already had a vaccine months before the pandemic.” Read where? “There was this Facebook post.” And: “Of course, you know, I say, can you trust authorities, scientists, newspapers, you know what I mean?”

Some time ago, I would just have taken some mental distance. Nowadays, I prefer physical distance as well. About two meters.

A Dutch version of this article was published in December 2020 in the Cahiers de la Documentation 2020/3-4 of the Belgian Association of Documentation

How to silence investigative journalism

Here is a way to silence investigative journalism, probably not unique. Insurance companies hold an important key. The case of the Belgian news site apache.be.

Apache is one of these investigative news outlets one finds in many countries these days. Independent journalism, motivated professional journalists, fact finders, no ads, pain in the establishment’s asses. Dependent on donations or subscriptions or both. Many have small audiences, continuously fight to pay the butcher and the baker. Apache now is 10 years old and only in 2020 got into a somewhat calmer financial situation with 5,700 subscribers contributing around 80 euro a year. No surpluses yet, trying to invest in the next investigation and then one more.

Since 2016, Apache’s chief editor Karl van den Broeck doesn’t need a route planner to find his way to the Antwerp courts. He and his publication are being buried in court cases. Almost all come from one group of businesspeople, Eric van der Paal and others of Land Invest Group and affiliates, a real estate group that got the contract from the city of Antwerp to develop the old city slaughterhouse site. And Apache exposed dodgy politics behind the intimate friends Van der Paal and Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever (Flemish nationalist party N·VA and most powerful politician in Belgium).

First complaint in 2016. Apache won that one in 2018. Next in 2017, Apache won that one too, in January 2021. Van der Paal appeals, “into the European courts if necessary” – note: the public prosecutor said there was no case, but the court wanted to go through. In 2020, a unilateral petition to the court that Van der Paal won in first instance; the final verdict to follow later. Result: an article on Van der Paal was taken off the site with a penalty of 5000 euros a day it stayed online (it’s back on, challenging the petitioning party). Karl van den Broeck quotes Van der Paal saying: “I’m retiring. From now on you are my hobby.” Van der Paal had private detectives follow Apache journalists (which led to a debate on stalking of journalists in the European Parliament). “Pure intimidation,” the chief editor says.

This way of stalking a publication not only damages the publication. Apache has an insurance policy for court cases (that leaves tens of thousands of euros uncovered). The insurance company is getting irritated. Their conclusion: they don’t offer legal expenses insurance any more to news outlets.

Ha, there is the recipe: crush investigative news outlets with court cases and legal expenses until their coffers are empty and until the insurance companies walk away. Don’t even argue on facts or research results. Waste their money and their time.

Some people go incredible lengths to suffocate the freedom of the press.

One element of hope: Apache’s readership is growing, at a record pace since early 2020. Apparently, there is a need for independent journalism.