January 27th 2016, TivoliVredenburg

Top five controversial data start-ups – Tijmen Schep

‘Data is the new gold’ but also brings privacy issues. There still are loads of companies that either don’t or won’t see the pitfalls and dangers of Big Data. On this blog post, Tijmen shares with you five of the most controversial and outstanding start-ups messing with your data!

Top five controversial data start-ups – Tijmen Schep

April 8th, 2016

‘Data is the new gold’ seems to have become a common expression in the regular business dictionary. However, I think it would be more appropriate to compare data to oil. It brings you money, but like an oil leak, a data leak can be devastating to your social health. The large companies, like Apple, seem to have had their Sputnik moment and are starting to take privacy more seriously. But there still are so many start-ups that either don’t or won’t see the pitfalls and dangers Big Data can bring. On this blog post, I will share with you five of the most (not necessarily positively) outstanding start-ups that I encountered over the last year.

Before I start, let me explain why this list is what I decided to share with you. At the SETUP medialab, we have been building our own dubious app: the National Birthday Calendar. This pirateous app collects everything there is to know about all Dutch people by scraping and combining any data we find online – most of which people forgot they ever posted! Social network Hyves, 50plusser.nl, schoolbank.nl, The phonebook, the list is endless! So far we have been able to gather data on about 8 million Dutch people, and we know quite a bit about 800.000 of them. Watch my TEDxUtrecht Talk below to get a full recap!


Top five controversial data start-ups

1. Guess Who – Mutuals (Made in Holland!)

Remember the classic boardgame “Guess Who?” (“Wie Ben Ik?” in Dutch). Mutuals is an online version of this game in which two Facebook friends can play each other, using their common friends as characters in the game. There is one minor deviation from the classic: you don’t just tick off friends by asking about their physical appearance, like “am I a blonde?” Mutuals also offers some dubious suggestions, such as “is this person gay”, “does this person believe in God” or “is this person in a healthy relationship?”. Every time you play this game, you are basically sharing really intimate details about your friends without their knowledge.

There is a way out, though. If you don’t want to be a part of games that your friends play, you can opt-out by emailing a copy of your passport to Metritz, an Amsterdam based company.

2. Rating your peers – LuLu and Peeple

If you can anonymously rate the quality of wachingmachines and toasters online, why not rate the quality of people? This type of startup seems to pop-up every few years, like honestly.com (shut down) or LuLu. Until very recently (februari 2016) women using LuLu could rate men they met, and apply tags such as “#Handsome” or “#StilLovesHisEx”. So far most of these services have toned down their people-rating functionality. LuLu is now a pretty run-of-the-mill dating app.

The latest of these apps, Peeple, got an awful lot of media attention last year, and quickly and funnily became known as “the most hated app on the internet”. Using Peeple you could, again, rate the people around you, or as the founders called it ‘give valuable feedback’. The whole story got even weirder when the two founders started complaining about and deleting the negative feedback they personally were getting on Facebook. Oh sweet irony.

3. Scoring your ‘Social Credit’ – Deemly

In my TEDx Talk, I divulged the Chinese mandatory ‘social credit’ score. It reflects how good of a citizen the Chinese government considers you to be, based on whether you say the right things (on social media), buy the right products, or hold a criminal record. A high score helps you get a job or a visum, but it also helps your love life: the current version of the system is already connected to the largest dating website in China. Creepily enough, even the score of your friends influences your score. So you might want to reconsider and make sure you have the right friends!

However, Silicon Valley proves that you don’t need a repressive government to build this functionality. Deemly offers to aggregate the various ratings you get on different online services into one single score that represents your trustworthiness. As they say in their promo video: “imagine the power of using your Deemly score alongside your CV for a job application, perhaps to get a bank loan, or even to link to from your dating profile”. It seems like the Chinese government has imagined just that! But when your startup so closely resembles the plan of a government that wants to shape social pressure into a repressive force, then perhaps it’s time to imagine something else…

4. Harmless images or corporate surveillance? – Placemeter

Placemeter breathes new life into your old smartphone. Just launch their app and hold the camera against your window so that it overlooks the street below. It then sends images of the street via a video stream to Placemeter’s servers, where algorithms observe specific measures, like “how busy are the sidewalks?” or “how many people are entering the cafe across the street?”. Their business model: bringing valuable information to the owner of the businesses on your street.

Sounds great for local business, right? Well, one might consider also viewing this app through another lens. By receiving and storing your streams, Placemeter also builds a massive crowdsourced corporate surveillance camera network which, when big enough, could follow people as they move through the city. Scary, right? In a way, Placemeter is creating an infrastructure similar to the police’s, only much more difficult to spot. And far less regulated.

5. Reinforcing our glass ceiling – Google

Ok, Google isn’t exactly what you’d call ‘a start-up’ anymore. But, despite they might seem honour amongst thieves, Google tends to provide great examples of dubious practises that we’ll definitely hear more of in the future. Recently, for example, researchers showed how Google is less likely to show ads for high paying jobs to women. Interestingly, I don’t think Google does this on purpose. What possibly happened, is that Google’s algorithms just picked up a societal pattern. If women are statistically less likely to click on ads for high paying jobs, Goolge stops displaying these to them.

There’s an important point here: do we optimise our algorithms for the world we have, or the world we want?

If our algorithms start feeding the world as it is back to us, reinforcing current inequalities, then we may slow down the development of a more equal society. In this case, the glass ceiling could be structurally reinforced by algorithms. Like I explained in my talk, algorithms are never neutral. When combined with Big Data, they enable “data discrimination”, a practice where specific groups or individuals can have an unfair disadvantage based on the data available about you. Computer says no! At SETUP, we predict for these algorithms to become a new battleground in which societal issues will be fought over. Will we accept old-boys-algorithms or design feminist algorithms?


Can’t get enough of these weird and rather controversial start-ups?

Have a look at the hilarious Internet of Shit Twitter, ridiculing the most bizarre Internet of Things products.

Finally, if you’re curious about privacy design, have a look at the brand new book I wrote called “Design my Privacy”. It’s a handy starting point for designers who are asked to connect their creations to the internet, and who want to dig a little deeper about how their creation could affect their users and society.

Coming to think of it, perhaps the makers of the above apps should read it too.