Let’s call them Octapi. It’s a made-up name, but useful.
There’s an Octapi in your lap. It’s a friendly one. You’ve had it for a few years and you like its smiley face – in fact it has different faces you can use according to your mood.
Moods and preferences are important… The Octapi are very good at picking up how you feel.
You like the Octapi. You like the way it can reach out and send smiling, outraged or sad faces to other Octapi that your friends have; and how it can suggest linking feelers with Octapi owners that belong to people you’ve never met, but share the same interests, likes and dislikes as you.
When you started, your Octopi only had contact with a few, but now you have many new friends through the Octapi in their laps.
You didn’t need to buy your Octapi. It came free. All you have to do is to feed it. It lives on information – your information, particularly what you like and dislike. It keeps everything.
Mood is important… because what you like and dislike says a lot about you. You tend to associate with people who like the same things, so the polite little Octapi suggests other Octapi whose keepers might be like you.
What you don’t like can be even more powerful than what you like. The Octapi colonies, spread across the world, have so much information on you, and people like you, that, they can suggest what you might want to buy, or subscribe to. This is how the Octapi earn their living. This is stated clearly, so there’s no problem with the existence of the Octapi as long as you read the small print and understand that keeping one is not really free.
Part of the small print in the “how to look after an Octapi’ manual is that your personal information – including likes and, most importantly, dislikes, will be kept anonymously – that is, will be kept so it can be useful to the feeding of the Ocatapi colonies around the world but never released to anyone outside of that ‘trusted’ colony.
Then a very clever man from a very famous university developed a program that could infer how you would vote from your social preferences – known to your Octapi, of course. The clever man approached the chiefs of the Octapi and asked if he could set up an experiment, for academic purposes only, which would pay thousands of Octapi users to install his program in the Octapi on their laps.
What may not have been clear is that his program was capable of contacting other Octapi who were friends of the first Octapi and asking them for the likes and dislikes of their Octapi friends.
A few days later the personal likes and dislikes of an estimated fifty million Octapi owners, around the world were safely tucked away in a set of files, which were subsequently processed for use outside of the academic world for which they were intended.
In 2015 this leak of Octapi information was denied. Three years later, after an American election and a British Brexit – both of which used this or related Octapi data – had changed the face of the at least two countries.
It’s all fake news, of course. There’s no such thing as an Octapi, as far as I know.
It takes a lot of courage for a modern newspaper to pursue and publish this kind of story. But it’s now in the public domain, and being discussed in Government on both sides of the Atlantic: