Explaining Algorithmic Citizenship

Thanks to Citizen-Ex.com, a website developed by James Bridle, we can much better understand and help spread the word about algorithmic citizenship. Website tracking is being used to spy on people and gather a lot of different types of personal information. But algorithmic citizenship includes information about people’s locations and registration of the sites they visit. This helps companies and government agencies to further categorize Internet users based on their rights of citizenship and the different loyalties that they have. When spies use algorithmic citizenship, they can rationalize a user’s virtual citizenship as foreign and therefore a viable target.

Your Citizenship on the Net

Our algorithmic citizenship is the citizenship that we are assigned by the complex system of calculation that happens when we browse the Internet. In the physical world we are limited by geographic and economic and legal boundaries, helping to shape what we like or trust or follow. But on the Internet, we can go anywhere at any time. This means that people with access to the Internet can form different ties, and this is what the system calculates. Algorithmic citizenship is also therefore not fixed, as it changes with the different places that we go online.

When calculating, algorithmic citizenship takes into account each website that a person visits and equates this to an attachment to the country where that website is hosted. At first people may react with a “so what?” but it is not so innocent when you examine how that data is used. You can visit China, for instance, and so what? But when people start labeling you as a communist because you wanted to spend time in this communist country, it probably becomes something that you can no longer ignore. A similar thing happens with algorithmic citizenship. You are judged along with your allegiances based on the websites that you visit. So for instance if you like using Google and you often read Yahoo! News, your algorithmic citizenship will be computed as being heavily American.

But this is not all. Many websites that are operated by people from one country are not actually hosted in that country. Data centers are a huge industry in developing countries because it is cheaper to have data stores there. This means that a lot of websites, when tracked, will lead the system to record an allegiance to one of these host countries. If the information sites that you visit are actually about European events and the like, but they are hosted somewhere in Asia, for instance, your algorithmic citizenship will be computed as having an Asian rather than a European component. This can make browsing annoying when browsers decide to feed you a different language or websites start sending you strange advertisements. It can also be dangerous when you start getting flagged as having connections with countries that are heavily monitored for terrorist activities.

The Dangers of Algorithmic Citizenship

When people are given a certain algorithmic citizenship, this is used as a basis on which to decide whether or not they are viable surveillance targets. The NSA and GCHQ are two of the intelligence agencies that are known to use algorithmic citizenship to identify who they should be spying on. It is also used to twist their way into spying on people that they are not legally allowed to spy on. The Guardian recently published an article on this, explaining how the NSA uses algorithmic citizenship to justify that certain targets are not American and can therefore be surveilled. If the agency can show that their browsing computes as less than 50% American, the agency can say that their allegiance is elsewhere and that US rights do not apply to them.

So what happens when a US citizen loves the Russian ballet or a UK citizen likes to watch traditional kung fu movies? They can be targeted despite the protections that their physical world citizenship gives them. Being aware of this, there is a simple solution to the woes of being labeled with an incorrectly computed algorithmic citizenship, or the problems of being tracked all over the Internet. Many people who value their privacy and don’t like being spied on have learned to use virtual private networks to fool these tracking systems. VPNs alter the detectable source of connections from computers to websites, so that people are not identifiable. The websites that you visit will still be used in the computation, but the system cannot know where you as a user are connecting from. This way, you can also manipulate your algorithmic citizenship to make it what you want it to be.

In the future, we may not just be dealing with spies and greedy companies. We may have a crisis of citizenship because of these Internet computations. Already we are a world of people who have citizenship in one or two countries yet work virtually in other countries where we may never hope to physically live or even visit. Our affiliations are already split because of the nature of our digital world and lives. People who spend most of their lives virtually working in other countries, talking almost exclusively with people who live there, are not unlike migrants. Algorithmic Citizenship could help these virtual migrants to find greater stability, or it could aggravate the unsteady nature of their conditional status. It all depends on who is willing to recognize them as valuable contributors to a country’s economy and who is willing to go only as far as taking advantage of their labor without any thought to rewards earned.

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