Eoin O’ Callaghan checks his online fingerprints at a screening of Know All (Cloud Control: Who Owns Your Data) at the Cork Film Festival.
Sponsored by the Science Foundation Ireland, and screened by RTÉ both before and during the Cork Film Festival, Cloud Control is an informative/petrifying/encouraging documentary (delete as appropriate). The hour-long analysis, presented by editor of Mashable UK, Anne-Marie Tomchak, explores the potential benefits, dangers and mysteries of so-called ‘Big Data’: that amalgamation of our online fingerprints which we previously thought to be stored in some vaguely defined ‘cloud’ sphere. In a world where such a common belief can be disproved, then, another age-old axiom holds true: knowledge is power.
For better or worse, of course, and certainly Tomchak, herself a vocal advocate of social media and hashtag culture, the analysis showcases multiple examples of Big Data/digital culture working for the greater good. Tomchak’s first case study is that of the family farm in Longford, where Facebook allows for long-distance communication between parents and children. Taken as a method for filling out the occasional online crossword puzzle (and occasionally consulting Google for tips), the ominous Big Data seems a lifetime away. Translated to the rugby pitch, where advanced biometrics have helped Donnacha O’ Callaghan customise his training regimen and track his day-to-day performance, or to Cork University Hospital, where Geraldine Boylan uses data to monitor the health and well-being of premature babies, it’s again difficult to argue with the influx of technology we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years. Society is merely using its available tools—tools which they themselves created, mind—to advance itself.
However, with great power comes great responsibility, to drop another power-themed cliché, and ethical considerations regarding privacy are, naturally, a preoccupation in Cloud Control. Dave and Dani Kinsella have taken to recording their children’s exploits on YouTube, resulting in small-time internet phenomenon The Kinsella Bunch (with a not unrespectable 7,382 subscribers at the time of writing). Whether Dave and Dani will be able to reconcile any future dangers/backlash with their upload-heavy lifestyle at present does, however, remain to be seen. Such concerns about privacy and consent are exacerbated by the evolved form of CCTV in operation at Blackpool, where information about demographics, transport and shopping habits are collated on a daily basis, and by the prospect of deliberating online shoppers being ‘nudged’ towards alternative products.
Recurrent throughout these scenes, and the documentary as a whole, is the theme of control: whether our decisions—in the retail sphere, for example—will, eventually, be out of our hands, orchestrated by an Orwellian higher power. In fact, just using social media, as Tomchak indicates, does mean a surrender of at least SOME privacy; and often much more than we know about, as evidenced by Tomchak’s baffled reaction to the wealth of information plucked from her networking trail. Max Schrems, an Austrian privacy activist and victor in a case against Facebook and US-EU data exchange, ultimately emerges as the hero of the piece: he’s not naively resistant to technology’s benefits and advantages, but he remains adamant that Facebook, Twitter, Google et al. need to be law-compliant in their use of data. His tome of Facebook data—relating not only to information that he willingly shared but to that which was derived from his interactions with friends—reminds us that Facebook’s reach extends far beyond those who are actually registered on the site. Some, like Tomchak’s father, are online ‘by proxy.’
Despite Tomchak’s obvious investment in social networking and data, she remains objective and shrewd throughout, sceptical of both the Luddites and the technology-obsessed, and the documentary is, above all, thought-provoking. The Q & A session, which took place after the screening in the Triskel Christchurch, confirmed Tomchak’s commitment to the digital age, even if she acknowledged her increased awareness into the problems of Big Data culture. Audience questions ranged from the remarkably tech-savvy to the thoughtfully threat-savvy: does the use of Big Data remove the ‘human’ element from farming, health care and social interaction? While this reviewer would probably agree to some extent, Barry O’Sullivan (Insight Centre for Data Analytics) and the rest of the panellists (Geraldine Boylan of UCC and Margie McCarthy of Science Foundation Ireland) agreed that the ongoing formulation of a 21st-century ‘Magna Carta,’ which will outline the guiding principles of data ethics, is a positive step in the right direction.
Oh, and that ‘cloud’ data mentioned at the beginning? It’s stored in a series of nondescript, high-security mainframes located worldwide. So now you know.
Know All (Cloud Control: Who Owns Your Data) screened on 18th November 2016 as part of the Cork Film Festival 2016 (11 – 20 November)