Unless you have been living under a rock in the past weeks, you have probably heard and read about the controversy regarding Facebook. I mean the latest snafu: it was revealed that some private company was able to siphon off the personal data of some 50+ million people, to then process the data to create highly specific profiles of these people – which were subsequently used to manipulate their voting behaviour through very precise, targeted messages.
From a cold, purely technological-psychological point of view, that precision of profiling is quite an achievement. Otherwise, not so much. The whole story has just made it obviously clear to everyone that Facebook is a huge surveillance machine, as I have repeatedly stated and warned for years now. Actually, I haven’t anymore lately, as I had come to the realisation that most people just don’t care enough to listen and act accordingly. I am not gloating now, as the repercussions on our societies and cultures of civil, well-informed, and rational discussions and conversations will become more severe going forward. If you think about it, we humans have only two means for resolving conflicts and differences of opinions: discussions and violent force. If our interactions will become more and more impeded by partisanship and tribalism, neglect for facts, and irrationality, there will be even more violence.
Of course, Facebook are now hemming and hawing, using weaselly arguments how they actually have clamped down on accessing personal data by third parties, how they want to connect the world and all that BS they have been peddling since their inception. At the bottom line, Facebook makes their money through targeted advertising, which requires the surveillance of their users. The users are not the customers, but the product, the advertisers are the customers. Any restrictions there will undermine Facebook’s business model. So even if Facebook has now limited the third party access to your personal data, they themselves of course still have it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook were very interested in the algorithms Cambridge Analytica used for their profiling.
And there are an unknown number of data-sets that were collected by third party developers in the years before Facebook restricted the access. Read this developer’s account how he unwittingly amassed lots and lots of personal data, even if he didn’t even want, need, and use them. These data-sets might be sitting on some computers and hard drives – and this story might have given new ideas to go back and check if the older data collections might have some new value now.
What I find interesting is that the profiling was mostly based on your “likes”. A few dozen “likes”, and they start to know you pretty well, 200 or so, probably better than your spouse. I have never “liked” anything, just out of a gut feeling. And while the “likes” might be the most indicative of your personality, Facebook & friends collect each and every piece of information about your actions. I guess also clicks on ads are very indicative. Or searches. Or your pictures. Or your friends and their “likes”, postings, and comments. See below. It’s scary.
So if you really want to use Facebook, and are concerned about your privacy, don’t “like”, aside from using every restriction Facebook offers to limit your public exposure, including minimising your profile data. And never use your Facebook account to log into any other service. And always log out of Facebook after you have visited their website, don’t stay logged in. The same holds true for Google as well, and also Amazon. And probably LinkedIn and every other “social” service out there. Don’t stay logged in, really. Don’t forget to log out on your mobile devices. Wherever possible, use fake accounts. And yes, don’t forget about your accounts for fitness tracking, weight-loss, and other areas of your interests. Don’t stay logged in there either. If you’re using Windows 10, go to Settings > Privacy and disable all the options that give access to your account info, contacts, messages, and so on, which are enabled by default.
Of course I am aware that Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg. Tracking and profiling have become the illness of the modern Internet. I have Ghostery installed for all web browsers on my computers, which blocks the trackers that are buried in the pages of most major websites, and my portable devices use blockers as well. Ghostery displays the number of trackers that it blocked when opening a single web page – some have five, or twelve, or 25 or more trackers embedded. Lots of tracking and potentially profiling.
And other than with Facebook or Google, we don’t even know exactly where all that data is collected and processed. There must be dozens if not hundreds of databases out there. Many of the data collectors and profilers are companies that sell their data for the purpose of targeted advertisement. So I often hear the argument, “but isn’t it good if I receive ads that are specific for my interests?”. I don’t know about you, but it would creep me out if I had shopped for, say, headphones on Amazon, and then everywhere I go – that is, not on Amazon anymore –, I get ads for headphones. As I try to block the trackers, I don’t have this problem, but I hear from many that it happens to them, and that it does not feel right.
You can shrug this off – it’s only advertising, right? –, but check out how much data is being collected by the Facebooks and Googles. It’s a surveillance nightmare. Now imagine to live in a country where access to this data is not protected from state “intelligence services”, or imagine a future where such data becomes accessible to them based on some emergency rulings and laws – remember the “nine eleven” craziness in the USA? –, and you should feel pretty uneasy about this massive data gathering and processing about your personal life. Already now, when entering the USA, you’re asked for your account names for the “social media” you use. I assume that’s not yet the login data including the password, but you see where this can go.
Of the two different dystopian futures, one described by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-four, the other by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, it’s obviously the latter that has become more and more our reality, at least in democratic societies: keep people happy with “social media” and other (seemingly) free services, and monitor and control them surreptitiously. No frictions, no outrage. Smooth.