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.

Finding the Tall Poppies

In a previous post I explained my process for keeping up with what’s going on the in world without turning on TV news. It’s pretty simple, very personal, and definitely not for everyone.

Recently I got a little reinforcement for my approach from a “futurist” whose approach for reading less news and being better informed was profiled in a Quartz article.

I disagree with some of his ideas – like getting off social media and “going dark” for periods of time. And I’ve never been comfortable in striking up conversations with random strangers.

But here are a few of his ideas I can completely endorse.

1. Practice selective ignorance

Trying to keep up with everything happening is a great recipe for frustration. So concentrate on finding better information on fewer but important topics.

3. Find the “tall poppies”
The futurist advises that each of us cultivate a network of curious and remarkable people who are hungry for interesting information and can guide our thinking. Such remarkable characters are called “tall poppies” in some companies, and Watson believes collecting these human blooms drives success.

Love that term “tall poppies”. For me, I also want poppies in my network who challenge my thinking in a constructive way.

5. Find sources you trust
Follow reliable, thoughtful, forward-looking publications and journalists online and let them do the heavy lifting, finding the most interesting info for you.

As I said in the earlier post, this is the core of my learning process. Creating reliable, thoughtful material takes hard work and time. You don’t get that from the talking heads channels.

Finally, he recommends travel, something more Americans need to do. Even if it’s visiting unfamiliar parts of your own country.


The image illustrates an article called Humans are Built to be Futurists on Futurist.com, a relatively new blog written by a futurist consultant.

Photo Post

Kathy and I had the opportunity to tour the greenhouses where the Smithsonian cultivates the flowers and plants used for exhibits and general decoration in all their museums. It was a wonderful way to spend a cold, windy afternoon. Below are a few of my shots. More of mine are in this gallery and Kathy’s much better work is on her site.

Apricots

I was working with a macro lens for the first time and very happy with the way these apricots turned out.

Orchid 2

I don’t know what this plant is called (it was in the orchid house) but I just loved the otherworldliness of it. For some reason it reminds me of a character in the film Beetlejuice.

Eye

I see an eye formed by the water puddled in the center of this plant.

Rubber Gloves

Always looking for the odd image, although I have to give credit to Kathy for spotting this one.

Hey, Alexa. Explain Your Algorithms.

AI Cover

Lately I seem to reading a lot about artificial intelligence. Between all the self-driving car projects and many, many predictions about robots coming for our jobs (and our children), the topic is rather hard to avoid. The topic is interesting but also somewhat scary since we’re talking about creating machines that attempt to replicate, and even improve upon, the human decision making process.

One of the better assessments of why we need to be cautious about allowing artificially-intelligent systems to take over from human judgement comes from MIT’s Technology Review, whose Senior Editor for AI says “no one really knows how the most advanced algorithms do what they do”.

If a person makes a decision, it’s possible (theoretically) to learn how they arrived at that choice by simply asking them. Of course it’s not as easy with children, but most adults are able to offer some kind of logical process explaining their actions. Even if that process is flawed and they arrive at the wrong conclusion.

It’s not so easy with machines.

There’s already an argument that being able to interrogate an AI system about how it reached its conclusions is a fundamental legal right. Starting in the summer of 2018, the European Union may require that companies be able to give users an explanation for decisions that automated systems reach. This might be impossible, even for systems that seem relatively simple on the surface, such as the apps and websites that use deep learning to serve ads or recommend songs. The computers that run those services have programmed themselves, and they have done it in ways we cannot understand. Even the engineers who build these apps cannot fully explain their behavior.

We’ve never before built machines that operate in ways their creators don’t understand. How well can we expect to communicate—and get along with—intelligent machines that could be unpredictable and inscrutable?

However, far below the level of television-ready robots and whatever Elon Musk is up to now, AI is a topic that educators should probably be watching.

More and more edtech companies are developing (and your school administrators are buying) “personalized” learning systems that include complex algorithms. These applications may fall short of being intelligent but will still collect huge amounts of data from students and then make “decisions” about the course of their educational life. 

It’s unlikely the salespeople can offer any clear explanation of how the systems work. Even the engineers who wrote the software may not have a good understanding of the whole package. Or know if there are errors in the code that could result in incorrect results.

And it’s not like you can ask the computer to explain itself.


The image is the logo from Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film AI: Artificial Intelligence, a somewhat mediocre example of the genre. And a movie would have been far different if Stanley Kubrick had lived to direct it.

The Real Meaning of Pi

Chalkboard with Pi

Today is Pi Day. Because the 14th of March could be written as 3.14, the first three digits for the irrational number we all learned something about in elementary mathematics.

Of course, this little bit of trivia only works if you’re writing the date as we do in the US. The whole exercise falls apart in most of the rest of the world where they traditionally write the day before the month. 14.3 makes no sense.

Anyway, beyond the fluff of memorizing lots of the digits and serving actual pies to math teachers (which we do appreciate), pi is a core mathematical concept with a long history and many important applications.

In this New Yorker article from three years ago, a math professor at Cornell University briefly offers a few reasons Why Pi Matters.

So it’s fair to ask: Why do mathematicians care so much about pi? Is it some kind of weird circle fixation? Hardly. The beauty of pi, in part, is that it puts infinity within reach. Even young children get this. The digits of pi never end and never show a pattern. They go on forever, seemingly at random—except that they can’t possibly be random, because they embody the order inherent in a perfect circle. This tension between order and randomness is one of the most tantalizing aspects of pi.

A little knowledge makes for a better Pi Day.


The image is from the header of the New Yorker article.