I was just sitting outside on the verandah, having my later-in-the-morning coffee, gazing out on the vast ocean, and enjoying the calmness of the scenery. It’s a sunny, balmy 30 degrees, if a bit humid, as it has been raining quite a bit this week. The other day, we had a huge thunderstorm, it poured down some 200 litres of water per square metre within about two hours. All gutters overflowing, little rivers everywhere, even some damaged roads. A thunderbolt hit a transformer nearby, and with a loud bang, the electrical power was off.

I have caught up with some podcast listening, as last week I was somewhat out of order due to slight health issues. Nothing serious, but it kept me from doing a lot, and away from the desk. Mostly downtime, and some movie watching.

Among others, I listened to this podcast. Three tech-savvy and intelligent guys, and in the aftershow, they discuss the annoyance of getting too many ads in their Instagram feeds. As I am not an Instagram user, I cannot judge this myself. They also discussed the personal relevance of the ads they receive.

I found it utterly fascinating that they obviously were pleased if, or when, the ads were well targeted. Which means, if you think about it, that the ads providers have targeted, narrow profiles of them. And – they like it, they’re not creeped out by any means.

I think it’s well established now that tracking and spying on people, including creating corresponding profiles, and selling those data, directly or indirectly, is ubiquitous and invasive. But what if even intelligent people, with the ability of emulating the future and its risks, don’t mind, or even consider this a positive?!

Already during my downtime this week, it had occurred to me that the ubiquitous surreptitious tracking of peoples’ behaviour and location might not even be the main issue here. It’s bad enough, but the way bigger, or worse, problem is that billions of people give their data away voluntarily on Facebook & friends, with the former clearly being the biggest player. Check out what people give away about themselves, their lives, and the ones of their friends and acquaintances. It’s chilling me to the bones, even in tropical climate. Talk about self-inflicted profiling, especially when combined with be behavioural data inferred from their actions, such as likes, and the data inferred from their relationships with others and their profiles, including messages or tagging people in images.

It’s unfathomable. The Stasi dossiers and archives of yore look like amateurs’ work compared to Facebook profiles.1 But people don’t seem to care. See the three podcasters above. OK, they were talking about Instagram, but you’re aware that Instagram belongs to Facebook, right? With each picture, comment on a picture, or “liking” one, they add to their Facebook profile – even without an active Facebook account.

Hm. But it’s only advertising, right? No real harm done. Well, let’s think about this once more. If Facebook’s user numbers are correct, ie. more than two billion, then a big part of them – half? more? – life in countries which have less than stringent privacy protection laws, to use some euphemistic language. I can only hope people under such circumstances and conditions are aware of their risks, only giving away as little information as possible, just the bare minimum to use the platform. And are willing to find the many arcane, half-hidden settings on Facebook’s site to restrict the access to their data. But it’s a faint hope, I admit.

As I wrote here:

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.

Now think about this: the current occupant of the White House – yes, yes, the one with authoritarian wet dreams, and open admiration for violent, suppressive dictators – is considering calling a state of emergency just to build the stupid wall to Mexico, based on some trumped2 up “crisis” at the southern border.

The USA is only an example here, even though a compelling one. The dangers loom elsewhere as well in these days of declining democratic values and principles. It would be interesting – and potentially chilling – to know how many police forces and similar organisations around the globe are routinely making use of Facebook profiles already.

Bad Things™ can happen quickly.

  1. This is not just some witty remark. Please download your Facebook profile. It will remind you of all the details of your private life that you already have forgotten. They haven’t. ↩︎

  2. Sorry, I could not resist. ↩︎