Michal Kosinski: You are the product

edited by Melinda Crane

If you are a heavy user of a smart­phone, that’s how you are leav­ing your dig­i­tal foot­prints. If you throw your smart­phone away, you are exclud­ing your­self from social net­works, from the abil­i­ty to con­tact your fam­i­ly. You can do it if you are a CEO of a big com­pa­ny because you have assis­tants but if you are a sin­gle moth­er work­ing two jobs you can­not sur­vive with­out a smartphone.

You are leav­ing foot­prints when using the inter­net, your brows­er, your social net­work account, your e‑mail. Now imag­ine, you closed all of this and you now are back in the stone age. But guess what, you get in your car and pic­tures of your car, your license plate and also of your face are being tak­en on high­ways, bor­der cross­ings, in cities by CCTV cam­eras. With facial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­o­gy we can very eas­i­ly match faces with pro­files which essen­tial­ly means that there is no escap­ing from leav­ing dig­i­tal foot­prints. Don’t try to stop leav­ing dig­i­tal foot­prints because there is no turn­ing back the clock. Mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy changes our lives for the bet­ter in many dif­fer­ent ways but it relies on us shar­ing data.

I think that essen­tial­ly pri­va­cy is gone. You can reg­u­late Google, you can reg­u­late Face­book, you can try to reg­u­late your own gov­ern­ment. You can­not reg­u­late the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment, you can­not reg­u­late hack­ers, you can­not reg­u­late small com­pa­nies that aren’t on the radar and don’t care. More­over it is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to con­vince peo­ple to use less effi­cient, more expen­sive and more bor­ing technologies.

That’s the busi­ness mod­el. If you don’t pay for some­thing, guess what, you are the prod­uct. And look, this mod­el has some ben­e­fits. Now an under­priv­i­leged per­son liv­ing in Poland, where Google doesn’t real­ly yet have much to gain from show­ing me search results for free, can use this beau­ti­ful shiny tech­nol­o­gy because its devel­op­ment was fund­ed by adver­tis­ers bid­ding for the eye­balls of peo­ple in America.


Let’s now try to refo­cus the dis­cus­sion from try­ing to pro­tect some­thing that is gone and try to man­age the tran­si­tion to the post-pri­va­cy world in such a way as to max­i­mize the ben­e­fit of the soci­ety and min­i­mize the risks. In such a con­text more trans­paren­cy is bet­ter than less trans­paren­cy. One could argue that Face­book and Google should be forced to share their data more broad­ly, rather than have a monop­oly on it. They should be encour­aged to share it not only with acad­e­mia and gov­ern­ments but also with startups.

Nei­ther the per­fect algo­rithm nor the per­fect pre­dic­tion of the future do exist. You are always going to have some bias. But you should not be mea­sur­ing the qual­i­ty of some­thing by com­par­ing it with per­fec­tion. You should be mea­sur­ing qual­i­ty by com­par­ing it with alter­na­tives. And our alter­na­tive now to the some­what biased algo­rithm is an even more biased judge. Or police­man. Or a bored and tired cus­toms offi­cer like­ly to stop peo­ple based on their gen­der, age, or racial prejudice.

As long as we have con­ver­sa­tions like this and we have enough of them, we are going in the right direc­tion. As time pass­es and peo­ple essen­tial­ly learn about the quirks and oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tics of a giv­en tech­nol­o­gy, the immune sys­tem kicks in. If you are a Face­book native, you will know that peo­ple repost sil­ly things and you have to factcheck them. As a user you become more and more sophisticated.


Prof. Dr. Michal Kosin­s­ki is a psy­chol­o­gist and data sci­en­tist born in Poland, spe­cial­iz­ing in psy­cho­met­rics and data min­ing. In his research, he inves­ti­gates human behav­ior through the dig­i­tal foot­print that peo­ple leave behind while using dig­i­tal platforms.

He is cur­rent­ly an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor at the Stan­ford Grad­u­ate School of Busi­ness. Michal Kosin­s­ki holds a Ph.D. in psy­chol­o­gy and a master’s degree in psy­cho­met­rics and sci­ence. He stud­ied at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge, where in 2008 he and his team devel­oped a sys­tem to cre­ate detailed pro­files of peo­ple using online data, Face­book likes and smart­phone data. Pre­vi­ous­ly, Michal Kosin­s­ki was Deputy Direc­tor of Cam­bridge University’s Psy­cho­met­rics Cen­ter, a researcher at Microsoft Research and a post­doc at the Stan­ford Fac­ul­ty of Com­put­er Sci­ence. With his inno­v­a­tive approach­es and numer­ous projects, Kosin­s­ki plays an impor­tant role in online research and behav­ioral analysis.

Michal Kosinksi has pub­lished numer­ous papers and holds awards such as the “Ris­ing Star” or the “Open Inno­va­tion Award.” In 2013, he was hon­ored as one of the “Top 50 Most Influ­en­tial Peo­ple in Big Data.”