TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Are we all digital serfs?

With our digital lives increasingly moving to the cloud and mediated by a growing number of devices, our dependency on Google, Facebook and Apple is resembling a sort of feudalism.

Technology Spectator

In our electronic lives, we are increasingly delegating all aspects of security, data storage and data protection to companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple. We no longer have to remember multiple usernames and passwords and can sign on to a range of services using our Facebook or Google account details. Email, appointments and contacts are synchronised across our many devices and "safely” stored in the cloud. Our digital purchases of music and books are also stored safely in the cloud, ready to be accessed when necessary on any platform, freeing us from the need to do backups or protect the data from potential harm.
Security expert Bruce Schneier has likened this situation to a form of "feudal security”. He makes the analogy with the feudalism of medieval times when vassals pledged allegiance to lords in return for land. In our modern context, we are all, as vassals, pledging allegiance to the various companies that grant us protection as well as storage and other services. The problem, he goes on to say, is that we have no control over how that protection is provided and have to trust that these companies will do the right thing and not spy on us or turn over our data to other companies.

Although the analogy is somewhat "cute”, it does serve to highlight the imbalance in power in the relationships we enter into with these companies. However, it also understates the complexity of our digital interactions. For a start, unlike a feudal vassal, we rarely make allegiances to just one company. Social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Google all provide mechanisms for authentication and integration with websites and other company’s apps.

Each application can ask for a range of different levels of access making it nearly impossible to keep track of what exactly can be accessed by whom. The same happens on our phones irrespective of whether it is Apple, Google or even Microsoft providing the core platform.

The complexity of our relationships with various companies extends to the terms of the agreements we enter into with them. Unlike vassals and even serfs in medieval times where the responsibilities to the lords and vice versa, was pretty clear, the same cannot be said for our legal position with these companies. In his article, Bruce Schneier mentions the case of a Kindle user whose Kindle was remotely wiped by Amazon and her account closed. As a result, she lost access to her entire book collection that she thought she had "bought”. Of course, she hadn’t bought anything, she had just licensed the content for display on an approved device.

The reason her account was closed was apparently because she had bought a book from the UK Amazon store when she lived in Norway, a violation of Amazon’s use agreement. The irony here of course is that when it comes to paying tax, Amazon, like other companies will become incredibly flexible with country boundaries and shift the point of origin of the content to wherever it suits them.

The end result to the user, however, is the uncertainty around what they are actually buying and the limitations to its use. Here again there is a departure from the analogy with feudal life. The principle time a vassal or even a serf’s life was uncertain was when there was a change of power. Otherwise, you just learned to play by the rules. In the case of the companies we are relying on, those rules are complicated, open to interpretation and can change regularly, as has been the case with Google and Facebook in particular.

As more of our digital lives moves to the cloud and is mediated by a growing number of devices, our dependency on those controlling the platforms becomes more profound. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter which companies they are as they all operate on a similar basis.

In feudal times, the lords were the ruling class on which the governing royalty relied. Perhaps Bruce Schneier’s analogy of Google, Facebook and Apple as digital equivalent of feudal lords was not that far off the mark after all?

David Glance is a director at the Centre for Software Practice at The University of Western Australia.