Facebook is a Surveillance Machine

I’ve been increasingly weary of posting status updates on Facebook over the last few months, and the latest revelations of the data harvesting by a firm Cambridge Analytica only heighten my anxiety about what Facebook is becoming: a massive surveillance machine. From a recent New York Times piece by Zeynep Tufekci:

This wasn’t a breach in the technical sense. It is something even more troubling: an all-too-natural consequence of Facebook’s business model, which involves having people go to the site for social interaction, only to be quietly subjected to an enormous level of surveillance. The results of that surveillance are used to fuel a sophisticated and opaque system for narrowly targeting advertisements and other wares to Facebook’s users.

Even if you aren’t a user of Facebook (or have ever had an account), facebook may have built a “shadow profile” of you. That’s kind of frightening.

Tufekci is mindful that it isn’t as easy as just deactivating Facebook for many users—it is the de facto internet in portions of the world, to others it is a place to organize civic events or protests, and for the rest of us, it is still a useful tool to keep up with friends and family. The point is: before you make your next social media update, be mindful of what you are sharing and that for every incremental post you make on Facebook, you provide additional data on which some (unbeknownst to you) third party will build an extensive profile of you.

On the Internet of Things, Privacy, and Surveillance

Bruce Schneier paints a world where “The Internet of Things” prevails. It is reminiscent of science fiction. Sadly, this world is not too far away:

In the longer term, the Internet of Things means ubiquitous surveillance. If an object “knows” you have purchased it, and communicates via either Wi-Fi or the mobile network, then whoever or whatever it is communicating with will know where you are. Your car will know who is in it, who is driving, and what traffic laws that driver is following or ignoring. No need to show ID; your identity will already be known. Store clerks could know your name, address, and income level as soon as you walk through the door. Billboards will tailor ads to you, and record how you respond to them. Fast food restaurants will know what you usually order, and exactly how to entice you to order more. Lots of companies will know whom you spend your days –and night — with. Facebook will know about any new relationship status before you bother to change it on your profile. And all of this information will all be saved, correlated, and studied. Even now, it feels a lot like science fiction.

Will you know any of this? Will your friends? It depends. Lots of these devices have, and will have, privacy settings. But these settings are remarkable not in how much privacy they afford, but in how much they deny. Access will likely be similar to your browsing habits, your files stored on Dropbox, your searches on Google, and your text messages from your phone. All of your data is saved by those companies — and many others — correlated, and then bought and sold without your knowledge or consent. You’d think that your privacy settings would keep random strangers from learning everything about you, but it only keeps random strangers who don’t pay for the privilege — or don’t work for the government and have the ability to demand the data. Power is what matters here: you’ll be able to keep the powerless from invading your privacy, but you’ll have no ability to prevent the powerful from doing it again and again.

Is it strange that I am re-reading 1984 at this very moment?