#4 Freedom not to be manipulated: How to fight weapons of math destruction*

By EDRi · November 7, 2016

This is the fourth blogpost of our series dedicated to privacy, security and freedoms. In the next weeks, we will explain how your freedoms are under threat, and what you can do to fight back.


Algorithms: What are they and how do they work?

When we use social networks like Facebook or video sharing platforms like YouTube, a lot of sensitive data about us is generated and stored. It can be used for different purposes by those companies and by other companies with which the data might be shared. For example, they can decide that, since you accepted their terms of service, they can do “research” based on the information you posted. This has already happened: Facebook did an experiment with thousands of users to work out if they could manipulate people to make them feel more or less positive, by using an algorithm that showed different information in different people’s timelines.

It has been proved that only the fact of showing people in their social media timeline that their friends went to vote, can make people vote, and increase the turnout of an election – and this means by showing certain people this information could favour one side or another in an election. This gives a lot of power to corporations. Ultimately, there is nothing to stop such a company from using its influence to favour one candidate or another, or threatening to do so in order to gain political leverage.

Our sensitive data can also end up in the wrong hands. The Google flu trends experiment used information about what people were searching online to guess when flu outbreaks were about to happen. This type of information could be used to prevent catastrophes and aid public health, for example an epidemic crisis. But people’s sensitive data, such as health-related information, should be used very cautiously.

How to claim back your freedom not to be manipulated

If you browse the internet while being logged into a social network, you may be sharing far more information that you might expect. You should also carefully consider with whom you want to share sensitive data like information about your health, sexual orientation, or political opinions, either explicitly or implicitly.

DuckDuckGo‘s privacy policy explains that it does not collect or share any personal information. You can make it your search engine by default on your personal computer and smartphone. Apart from its strong privacy commitments, DuckDuckGo has some useful features like “!bangs” which can make your searches quicker. Do you need to look for EDRi in Wikipedia? Just type “edri !w” and you’ll be in our Wikipedia page in no time!

John is also dealing with his sensitive personal data in this video, prepared by our member Association for Technology and Internet (ApTI) – Romania:


What can politicians do to safeguard your freedoms online?

The rules on online privacy in the EU (ePrivacy Directive) will be soon updated. This law deals with privacy and confidentiality of communications for the entire EU, and it affects tracking and other issues related to your freedoms online. Are politicians ready to fight for your protection?

Read our previous blogposts here, and stay tuned to our next blogposts to know more about your freedoms online, and how they are threatened!

Read more:

*The term “weapons of math destruction” is part of the title of a book by Cathy O’Neil

Algorithmic Accountability and Transparency in the Digital Economy debate (7.11.2016)

How algorithms rule our working lives

The rise of data and the death of politics (20.07.2014)

Commission to open probe into tech companies’ algorithms next year (08.11.2016)