Chapter one: “Let me follow up with you on that.”
Couple days ago, when Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder and chief executive of Facebook faced senators on the House side of Capitol Hill, for two-day detailed questioning by more than 100 lawmakers, he didn’t break a sweat. It was, by basketball lingo, a serious mismatch in the paint and posterizing was inevitable. CEO of biggest social network came well prepared and next two halves of the game that lasted more than 20 hours he spent explaining to longstanding senators how social network (and internet) actually work. Mr Zuckerberg completed his job successfully, once again. He protected his empire for which he stated “has no known competitors”, and investors gave him thumbs up on the stock exchange next morning. The biggest takeaway from the press was following: senators don’t understand how Facebook works. And they are not alone. If you have a Facebook profile, chances are, you don’t understand too.
In 2003, the first US sample survey found two alarming facts concerning (a) the widespread ignorance among the public regarding the fundamental aspects of data flow and (b) the lack of protective steps taken on the part of consumers. According to Turow (2003), this was particularly surprising because the cognitive power of the users remained limited in contrast to the advances in institutional surveillance techniques. This is one of many reasons why I categorically refuse to call Cambridge Analytica’s shenanigans “scandal”. Alarming findings were published almost a decade and a half ago. In the meantime, digital literacy among growing internet population stagnated, while research techniques, big data collection and information manipulation became more refined. And if is anyone controlling this new world of the digital living, the answer should be one that Mr Zuckerberg gave senators on numerous occasions: “Let me follow up with you on that.”
Chapter two: Digital Footprint
A couple of years ago, Vladan Joler, the professor from University of Novi Sad, Serbia and his coworkers, now working under a project called Share Lab, had their sights set on a company that is filling the newspapers headlines.
“If Facebook were a country it would be bigger than China.” he sings the familiar tune. Silicon Valley poster company owns some 300 petabytes of data based on our likes, dislikes, emotions and deepest fears, boasts almost two billion users, and raked in almost $28bn in revenues in 2016 alone. Facebook is also the biggest employer of unpaid interns since we all curate the content, uploading, tagging, and sharing. And yet, Mr Joler argues, we know next to nothing about what goes on under the hood – despite the fact that we, as users, are providing most of the fuel – for free.
In their elaborate multi-stage research on the social network giant from 2016 they state:
“Every one of over 1 billion Facebook users, digital workers, work averagely 20+ minutes per day on liking, commenting, and scrolling through status updates. That is more than 300.000.000 working hours of free digital labour per day”.
For years researchers and scientists are using sophisticated techniques for collecting and analyzing social networks, trying to predict human behaviour, freedom of the press, stock market and bitcoin prices. It was just matter of time when someone will turn this into some sort of for-profit weapon.
In the meantime, in a pretense of searching for long-lost high school friend, you spent time filling up questionnaires that will answer you which type of movie star you are most likely to become (spoiler alert: none with the probability of 99.78%), posting senseless memes and spitting fire in absurd political debates – but before all that clicking the familiar button: “I agree”.
Not only our clicks and shares count on Facebook (or Facebook Payments Inc., Atlas, Instagram LLC, Onavo, Parse, Moves, Oculus, LiveRail, WhatsApp Inc. and Masquerade, companies owned by Facebook). Digital footprint tentacles reach far beyond summer vacation photos, as shown in Share Lab research: there is data collection from cookies, trackers, mobile phone permissions, data collected by Facebook partners like Acxiom and Datalogix which state that their servers process more than 50 trillion data “transactions” a year.
These companies collect information about you through things like store loyalty cards, mailing lists, public records information (including home or car ownership), browser cookies, and more. So, if you are buying at Safeway, and use your Safeway loyalty card that information is collected and saved by another Facebook partner company – Datalogix. This is one of the reasons companies like Cambridge Analytica cannot be called to court (and if they could, to court of which country). Facebook’s data servers are feeding ground to many legitimate businesses which use similar practices of data manipulation.
Chapter three: “Ok, I am deleting my Facebook”
First of all, you would need to stay off the internet. Google, Twitter and Amazon use similar practices. Some individual studies state that is a very tedious job, and paper maps are not as practical as your father stated they were on his first bachelor trip to Lisbon. Technology plays an incremental role in our lives and there is no way of denying or ignoring it. If you insist on deleting, maybe you can appoint our researchers to your profiles first for harvesting data to forecast Bitcoin prices.
“What is most striking is the sense of resignation, the impotence of regulation, the lack of options, the public apathy,” says Dr Julia Powles, an expert in technology law and policy at Cornell Tech, when asked to comment on Share Labs’ findings. “What an extraordinary situation for an entity that has power over information – there is no greater power really.” Our answer to crisis of owning our own personal data would be improving digital literacy, using technology more as a tool and less as a crutch, dispersing our data over number of competitors, use add and tracker blockers, use VPN on every instance and replacing big company products with independent, smaller alternatives (Signal and ProtonMail).
Ray Bradbury’s celebrated dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 (written in 1953!) is gaining popularity again in preparation for the first movie adaptation. In this totalitarian sci-fi world, everyone has rooms tiled by TV screens and everyone watches TV all the time. They burn books as per usual in societies like that, but one anarchist collects the books, and to surprise of the main protagonist has a small TV hidden behind the picture frame.
“I like to keep it small,” the book collector clarifies.
- Joler V., Petrovski A. (2016). Immaterial Labour and Data HarvestingFacebook Algorithmic Factory (1). Share Lab
- Turow, J. (2003). Americans and online privacy: The system is broken. Report of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
- YJ Park (2013). Digital literacy and privacy behavior online. Communication Research, Volume: 40 issue: 2, page(s): 215-236