The Problem Is Greater Than Facebook

Following up on the previous post, a few more random thoughts related to the current Facebook data security mess.

First, the problem with the collection and use of personal data extends far beyond Facebook. Google, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp1, SnapChat, and many other social media companies all offer services you don’t pay for.

All make money through selling you, their “members”, to advertisers. All have long, legally detailed terms of service, which you agreed to (even if you didn’t read it), that allow them to use your contributions and data in pretty much any way they want. Which brings up copyright issues that are a whole ‘nother rant.

But it’s not just social media collecting your data. Plenty of companies that charge for products and services – Apple, Samsung, Amazon, your phone and cable companies, your supermarket, gas station, and big box stores (remember your loyalty card?) – collect valuable data on your buying habits. And pretty much anything else they can find. Information they can use to make even more profits.

It will be interesting to see whether Europe’s new data security laws, which take affect in May, will impact the behavior of Facebook and the others. One major goal of the legislation is to give users more control over their data, including the ability to have some of it deleted. Facebook and other data-driven companies, on the other hand, are dependent on users willingly giving over their information and not caring what happens next. 

Over here in the US, despite calls for investigation and pending lawsuits, our current laws probably don’t cover this situation. It’s also very unclear what new regulations on Facebook and other social media companies would look like, considering the long tradition of free speech rights in this country. Plus, if actual data breaches of the past are any indication, there isn’t a lot of political will to do anything related to consumer protection.

I’ve seen many calls on Twitter and elsewhere to delete your Facebook accounts. That’ll show them. Except it probably won’t since the people who actually follow through is a very, very small fraction of their overall membership. Plus, Facebook will still have your data and has the infrastructure in place to continue following you around the web.

On top of everything else, Facebook makes it very difficult to actually delete an account. Bill Fitzgerald, my go-to guy for understanding data security and privacy issues, has some recommendations for people who want to try. If you’d rather continue using Facebook, check out Wired’s guide to the complicated world of their privacy and security settings.

Finally, when Mark Zuckerberg’s name comes up in the news, does anyone else picture Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network? Considering Zuck’s shall we say “relaxed” attitude towards the privacy of his customers, I’m beginning to think the portrayal of him in that film wasn’t all that far from real life. Maybe he needs to hire Eisenberg to front him and get Aaron Sorkin to write the script. Certainly would be more entertaining.


Cartoon is by the wonderful Randall Munroe, posted at his site xkcd and used under a Creative Commons license. Check out his book What If? in which he answers absurd hypothetical questions with real science.

1. Instagram and WhatsApp are both owned by Facebook.

Selling Your Personal Data Is Their Business

Grid

You probably noticed that Facebook was in the headlines again this week.

Social media, TV pundits, and politicians were outraged over high profile investigative reports in the New York Times and the Guardian claiming that personal information on 50 million Facebook users had been harvested by a researcher in 2014 and used to create targeted political ads for the trump campaign.

The details, of course, are far more complicated.1

For one thing, too many reports are calling what happened a “data breach”, often comparing it in some way to the Experian story from last year. But the term breach implies that someone outside of Facebook, in this case a researcher for the UK-based data analysis company Cambridge Analytica, broke in and stole the information.

In fact, the researcher followed Facebook’s rules and only collected information from something like 270,000 users, all of whom consented to the process. Then, thanks to the Facebook terms of service and API2 that applied in 2014, he was also able to harvest data from all of their friends, which brings us to the 50 million number most often quoted.

So, rather than having personal data stolen, Facebook gave it away. Or more likely, sold it.

Because that is their business model. It’s why the company has a market cap of around half a trillion dollars and CEO Zuckerberg has a net worth north of $60 billion.3

Facebook is very successful at collecting data from it’s more than two billion active members and then selling it to advertisers. Cambridge Analytica was one more advertiser and it didn’t matter that their ads were misleading and dishonest (at best). As long as the funds transfer went through.

Whatever you call this particular abuse of member data, it’s only the latest in a long string of arrogant and clueless decision the company has made over it’s short history. And, even with new privacy laws in Europe and Congress critters fighting over the opportunity to hold hearings, it probably won’t be the last.

And this is as good a time as any to again point out two facts about Facebook that anyone with an account should remember (but probably doesn’t):

1. Facebook is a multinational corporation not a community. Communities are built by people and, while it’s possible to create one using an online platform, the company itself is not going to make it happen.

2. Facebook membership is free. Which means you are not the company’s customer; you are the product they sell to advertisers. Monetizing your content and data is their first, maybe their only, concern.


I’m not sure the image has anything to do with this story.

1. In addition to the two articles linked above (the Times piece is probably a little better), Wired has done some of the best analysis of this story. This piece is a good place to begin.

2. API is application programming interface, the rules established by tech companies that allow outside code to communicate with their systems. In most cases, companies like Facebook provide very specific instructions as to what can be done with APIs.

3. Both took a big hit on Monday when Facebook’s stock dropped hard after investors spent the weekend digesting the Times and Guardian reports from Friday.

Listen To This

Sound 1781569 1280

Do you ever pay close attention to the sounds that are around you? Telling the “stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds” is the theme of a new-to-me podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz. I’ve only listened to a few episodes so far, but if this topic sounds interesting (pun intended), I recommend starting with these two segments.

First is Muzak, which anyone of a particular age (re: older) will recognize as the company that became synonymous with the concept “elevator music”. Today, music and other sounds are carefully and scientifically designed to help stores, restaurants, and other businesses improve productivity and profits.

The other is Disney Parks in which sound designers (Imagineers) for the entertainment company explain how they program music and other sounds to enhance the amusement park experience. Even in It’s a Small World, which all sounds the same to me.

Both segments, which run about 20 minutes each, might be good programs to play for middle or high school students studying science, social studies (this work involves a lot of psychology), or music.


The image is from Pixabay and is used under a Creative Commons license.

Facing the Future

Person of Interest scene

Apple is heavily promoting the feature in their top line iPhone X that scans and recognizes the owner’s face to access the device. I won’t be getting one.

Although there are probably a few bugs in their Face ID system, I’m not especially worried about any potential security issues of someone opening my phone because the software mistakes their face for mine. It’s just that the 2-1/2 year old phone I have now works fine, thank you.

However, on the broader topic of face recognition technology in the real world, a recent edition of the podcast IRL suggests we all need to pay attention.

We aren’t quite at the level of the techies in police and spy TV shows who can access almost any camera in the world and then identify faces with near 100% accuracy, but that future is closer than you might think.

For example, China is creating a database containing the faces of their entire population – 1.3 billion people – and a system that can “match a person’s face to his or her photo ID within three seconds and with 90% accuracy”. They plan to have it in place by 2020, just three years off.

But some applications are much closer to home. The photo management software that comes with most computers does a pretty good job of matching faces in your pictures. Google’s cloud-based Photos application has already collected several hundred million photos and you gotta wonder what they’re learning from all that data.

Anyway, the podcast episode, produced by the Mozilla Foundation, is worth a half hour of your time.


The picture is a promotional scene from the television series Person of Interest. Their computer could do a whole lot more than just identify faces.

Bringing Back a More Spirited Web

Web Trend Map

That image above, resembling a subway map, is an imaginative visualization of the World Wide Web in 2007.1 The company that created this graphic, the design firm Information Architects, stopped updating it in 2011.

In a recent blog post, they explain why there won’t be a 2018 edition: “The most important ingredient for a Web Trend Map is missing: The Web.”

The Web has lost its spirit. The Web is no longer a distributed Web. It is, ironically, a couple of big tubes that belong to a handful of companies. Mainly Google (search), Facebook (social) and Amazon (e-commerce). There is an impressive Chinese line and there are some local players in Russia, Japan, here and there. Overall it has become monotonous and dull.

How can we fix that, and bring back at least some of that spirit? The folks at iA suggest we need more bloggers, those who used to write online and those new to the concept.

If you are one of those old or young bloggers, please join in. Drop Facebook, drop Twitter and drop Medium for original thought. Own your traffic. You can use them to engage in discussion. But don’t get lost in there. Write daily. Publish as often as you have something to say. Link to other blogs.

Completely agree. I would especially love to see more teachers online, posting content to their own domains instead of to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the other closed tubes. Creating communities of educators that own and control their message. Instead of producing material for greater advertising sales.


Thanks to Doug Belshaw for the link that triggered this rant. He includes lots of interesting links like that in his free weekly newsletter, Thought Shrapnel.

1. Click the image to see a larger, more readable version.