Your Attention. Now!

A man walks onto the TED stage and introduces himself: “I was a design ethicist at Google, where I studied how do you ethically steer people’s thoughts.”.

My first thought was, how is it possible to “ethically” steer people’s thoughts? However, I think this particular speaker, now billed as a “design thinker”, may be worth listening to.

In his TED talk from last spring, Tristan Harris wants us to know about the “handful of people working at a handful of technology companies” who are working very hard to attract our attention and hang onto it for as long as possible. The better to sell that attention – us – to their advertisers. And they want to leave nothing to chance.

Because it’s not evolving randomly. There’s a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention. Because every new site — TED, elections, politicians, games, even meditation apps — have to compete for one thing, which is our attention, and there’s only so much of it. And the best way to get people’s attention is to know how someone’s mind works. And there’s a whole bunch of persuasive techniques that I learned in college at a lab called the Persuasive Technology Lab to get people’s attention.

Teachers especially need to understand what he’s talking about since they work with some of the primary targets of these companies looking for attention. If you teach high school students, possibly middle school, maybe even play this in class and follow it with a discussion. We need to help students understand what these adults are doing to them.

Finally, this is a good time to remember that, if you are not paying for a service, chances are you are the product, not the customer. Everything comes with a price and, on the web, that price is very often your information.

The Price of Privacy

Sign about not having anything to hide

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I don’t think most people understand online privacy.

They’re pretty sure the NSA and other government agencies are sucking up their data, and probably have been for years. But they largely adopt the philosphy in the image and assume their phone calls and internet traffic are not important enough for anyone to notice or care about.

Their information is inconsequential by being buried in a giant pile with trillions of other bits. Or they are resigned to the matter and offer a “what can you do” shrug. Or worse, they support the idea of that giving up some of their privacy will result in greater protection from the bogey man being presented to frighten them this week.

On the other hand, whatever the attitude towards government surveillance, most people seem quite complacent when it comes to Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other tech companies collecting their data2. In fact, they upload their personal information to these sites at a furious pace every day. And a growing number of people are happily adding to that data pile by buying devices that keep a running record of what they say and do.

For some reason, people seem to assume these billion dollar corporations (and a vast of array of cool startups) have their best interest at heart. The settings Facebook provides by default will assure their privacy. Amazon won’t tell anyone about the products I’ve bought. Google will keep my search history and email contents secret.

Sure. Except for the information provided to the marketing departments of thousands of companies. Companies who pay large amounts of money so you can have “free” services. When you pour all of that data together into some increasingly sophisticated algorithms, they gain some very valuable information. About what you buy (or want to buy), where you travel, who communicate with, and much, much more.

Now, I could very easily drop into conspiracy theory territory in this post, and I don’t want to go there. Many of these free online services have great value. In fact, I add many little bits of personal info to Google’s massive data pile every day. I even teach classes on their map-related resources to help teachers use them with students, and I have no illusion that Google isn’t collecting information from interactions with those maps.

But I’m also very picky about which services I use and what information I will provide. For example, I don’t post anything to Facebook (I do have an account) for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their TOS. And I’ve actually read more than few terms of service documents, and keep a short list of interesting translations and sites that help others understand what they are agreeing to.

Regardless of my personal preferences, however, this is a topic that all teachers need to better understand. They must help their students learn to protect themselves online, as well as doing a better job of evaluating the software and web services they bring into the classroom.

It may appear that Google, Microsoft, and the other companies (big and small) are keeping their free/cheap education web services “closed” to the outside world. But students (and you) are still providing data with everything they do. (Just look at what can be learned from a single photograph.) And those corporations are getting better everyday at monetizing your information.

Applying a Little Magic Sauce

Speaking of artificial intelligence, how well can an algorithm really understand someone today?

Companies like Facebook and Google have hundreds of coders working hard in the back room to build bots that can analyze the online behavior of their members. Their goal: to better understand them in the “real” world.

Ok, the actual goal is to understand how to sell them more stuff and increase profits in the next quarter.

Anyway, a recent series on the Note To Self podcast looks at the Privacy Paradox and what the online user can do to retain as much of it as possible when confronted with all those upcoming social media bots.

During one segment, they mentioned the Magic Sauce project from the University of Cambridge, which is defined on their main page as “[a] personalisation engine that accurately predicts psychological traits from digital footprints of human behaviour”.

So, how accurate is their British magic?

I skipped the choice of having it dig through and analyze the pages I like on Facebook, but not because I’m afraid of what it might reveal. I have an account but never “like” anything4 and only rarely comment on the posts of others. The bot wouldn’t have enough stuff to work with.

The other choice is to paste a sample of writing from a blog or other source, and I have 14 years worth of that crap. So I selected a more-than-200-word post from this space, one without any quotations which would mix in someone else’s personality.

And this is what I got.

screenshot of magic sauce results

Big miss on the age, but thank you, bot. The rest, I have to admit, leans towards the accurate side, even if I don’t consider myself artistic or organized.

Of course, that was based on just one small sample of my life. The Cambridge Psychometrics Centre has a whole battery of tests to peel back your psychological profiles, including some “Fun” tests (ten minutes to discover your personality disorders?).

But that’s more than enough AI bot training for now.

Reading The Digital Fine Print

Have you ever read Facebook’s Terms of Service and Privacy Policy? How about Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or any of the many other social networking sites you likely interact with?

Those user agreements are not just a formality in the registration process. They are legally binding contracts between you and the company, which apply whether you read and understood the whole thing or not.

A lawyer who has read many of these documents explains some of the little pieces you missed, using Instagram as an example.

Instagram’s Terms of Service is a long document, most of which is pretty straightforward and reasonably fair. You agree not to harass other users, not to try to hack their code, and other things that I think we can all agree are pretty necessary to keep things functioning.

The licensing section, though, is what I’d like to examine a little more closely. Particularly, this paragraph:

Instagram does not claim ownership of any Content that you post on or through the Service. Instead, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service, subject to the Service’s Privacy Policy, available here http://instagram.com/legal/privacy/, including but not limited to sections 3 (“Sharing of Your Information”), 4 (“How We Store Your Information”), and 5 (“Your Choices About Your Information”).

That’s pretty clear, right? Well, maybe not.

Here, in one sentence, is what you’ve just agreed to: “You’ve just granted Instagram the right to do anything at all with your photos, without ever paying you a dime for any of it.”

But that’s not all.

Instagram and the others are not non-profit, public services. They are trying to make a lot of money. And since you didn’t give them any, the companies find other ways: “They provide a service for free, and in return you give them some information about you, which they sell to advertisers.”

Whether you know it or not, your data is pretty valuable stuff. Your browsing history provides a lot of information about you and, through the use of cookies and other technologies, Instagram and others are able to collect and share those particulars with anyone willing to pay for it.

The privacy policy for these services often talk about “anonymizing” your data, removing any specific information about you before passing it along to a third party. However, there are no promises.

Does Instagram anonymize data in this way? Probably so, although it’s difficult if not impossible to verify that. But under the terms laid out in Instagram’s TOS, they are under no obligation to do so, and if they suddenly decided to stop and just straight-up sell all your personal info to advertisers, (1) they would be perfectly within their legal rights, and (2) you would probably never know about it.

Ok, if I just delete my account, all will be well, right? Probably not.

But under the TOS, Instagram is perfectly free to keep sharing those photos regardless of whether they’re deleted. The TOS is most likely worded that way to cover those times when a user deletes something, but cached copies continue to appear for a while. Nonetheless, the intent is irrelevant when the language is clear, and that language in the TOS is unambiguous.

Although this post (on a blog for photographers) examines Instagram, the terms of service and privacy policies on other social media sites are very similar, if not the same in the case of Facebook which owns Instagram. And the writer is not recommending you abandon these services.

Nothing I’ve written here is meant to say that you shouldn’t use Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, or any of the others. I use them myself, and just like you, when I signed up I clicked “OK” without reading the user agreement. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking a moment to examine why you’re using them and what you’re getting out of it, and consider how you can prepare now for contingencies that may arise down the road.

I’m not suggesting you quit either.

However, knowing what you’ve agreed to with a simple click of the mouse/tap of the screen is always a good thing. And once you understand, explain it to your students, colleagues, and your own children as well. They deserve to know what they’ve legally agreed to as well.