The Chaos of Facebook

Screen Shot 2019 04 24 at 5 44 54 PM

It’s probably an understatement to say that Facebook has been in the news a lot in the past three or four years, and not in a good way. In the US, we’ve seen a long parade of issues just regarding Facebook and it’s part in the 2016 elections.

But Facebook is a global company. We are not alone in the their executives putting profits before the welfare of their “members”.

For part of that international perspective regarding Facebook’s impact on elections and democracy, watch this talk from the recently completed TED Conference. It’s presented by a UK reporter who went back to her hometown in the southern part of Wales to learn how Facebook had impacted the 2016 Brexit vote.

And this entire referendum took place in darkness, because it took place on Facebook. And what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook, because only you see your news feed, and then it vanishes, so it’s impossible to research anything. So we have no idea who saw what ads or what impact they had, or what data was used to target these people. Or even who placed the ads, or how much money was spent, or even what nationality they were.

But Facebook does. Facebook has these answers, and it’s refused to give them to us. Our parliament has asked Mark Zuckerberg multiple times to come to Britain and to give us these answers. And every single time, he’s refused. And you have to wonder why. Because what I and other journalists have uncovered is that multiple crimes took place during the referendum. And they took place on Facebook.

She ends her talk with a passionate challenge to the “gods of Silicon Valley”, many of whom were likely in that TED audience.

Because what the Brexit vote demonstrates is that liberal democracy is broken. And you broke it. This is not democracy — spreading lies in darkness, paid for with illegal cash, from God knows where. It’s subversion, and you are accessories to it.

And what you don’t seem to understand is that this is bigger than you. And it’s bigger than any of us. And it is not about left or right or “Leave” or “Remain” or Trump or not. It’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again. Because as it stands, I don’t think it is.

I would argue that our own 2016 election also demonstrates that broken democracy.

If you can stand a deeper dive behind the more recent problems at Facebook, read the long but excellent cover story in the May issue of Wired.1 The reporter covers what they call “15 months of fresh hell” inside the company, based on interviews with “65 current and former employees”.

It’s ultimately a story about the biggest shifts ever to take place inside the world’s biggest social network. But it’s also about a company trapped by its own pathologies and, perversely, by the inexorable logic of its own recipe for success.

As I said, the story is long and is difficult to summarize in one post. But the TL;DR is that the leadership of Facebook either don’t think they’ve done anything wrong or they’re afraid to make substantial changes that will hurt growth and profits.

It’s excellent reporting and worth an hour of your time to read the whole thing.


The graphic is from the animated header of the Wired story. Seems an appropriate illustration given the chaos being sown by Facebook.

1. Wired Magazine offers some of the smartest reporting available on tech and its impact on society. It’s worth a few bucks to subscribe.

Can You Really Escape?

Escape

Over the past couple of years, much has been written about the downside from immersing ourselves in technology. From the far too many data breeches to warnings about too much screen time to predictions of artificial intelligence taking over the world, it’s pretty hard to escape.

But suppose you really did want to escape.

A writer for Gizmodo decided to test that premise and find out what happens if she said goodbye to the big five: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple. Or if it was even possible.

People have done thought experiments before about which of the “frightful five” it would be hardest to live without, but I thought it would be more illuminating, if painful, to do an actual experiment: I would try to block a tech giant each week, to tell the tale of life without it. At the end of those five weeks, I’d try to block all of them at once. God help me.

She found out very quickly that her experiment would require some special tech expertise, including a custom VPN that the average person wouldn’t have access to.1

Each of the six parts to this story are a little long and can sometimes get somewhat geeky, but I think it’s all worth your time. If you teach high school kids, this would be some good stuff to have them explore as well. I doubt they have any idea how far the threads from even one of these companies are woven into their lives.

For myself, I already know that there’s no way I can extract myself from Apple. Not without replacing lots of expensive devices I use every day. Plus Apple Music, iCloud, and who knows what else.

Google is another tech giant that would also be hard to leave completely. Even if I switched to Duck Duck Go for search, stopped using the Chrome browser, and relied on Apple Maps for directions,2 their code is still in the background of practically every site on the web. They’ve become very good at tracking me.

The same is true for Amazon. Even if you never bought anything from the company (or any of the many companies they’ve bought), their Amazon Web Services hosts tens of thousands of other websites. Even some of their retail competitors. They’re also very good at tracking people, even into the real world.

The segment on Microsoft surprised me a little. I thought I had cut the cord with them when I left the overly-large school district that employed me. Kill my Outlook account and delete Office. Done. I didn’t realize their software was behind the screen in my car.

And then there’s Facebook. I have an account that I open infrequently, usually to see photos from friends and family, and to catch up with the latest strips from Bloom County. Despite never posting anything original,3 I still see evidence of Facebook lurking all over the web.

Anyway, as I said, take some time to read this series. Even if you have no interest in escaping from any of these tech behemoths, everyone needs to understand how they are collecting and using our data.


Image: Escape by d76, posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. I suspect that the average person doesn’t even know what at VPN, virtual private network, is.

2. Apple Maps is actually excellent, certainly much better today than it was when introduced almost seven years ago. Google’s Street View, however, is still the most compelling reason to stick with their mapping service.

3. I have a few images on Instagram, posted before Facebook bought them, and I regularly open that app because that’s where some photographer friends post their images.

Digging Into My Facebook Data

Piles of Books

Facebook has been in the spotlight lately, over a variety of issues related to how they collect and use the data of their “members”. Which means they’re doing a lot of apologizing and tinkering with their system, hoping to avoid more negative publicity and political interference.

But even without the recent problems, Facebook would be making alterations to their data policies, because of new laws in the European Union that go into effect next month. Among other features, the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) will give citizens of the EU the right to see the data companies have collected on them.

Which is probably one reason why Facebook is now offering a way to download a copy of the information they have on you. You’ll find a link to make the request under General Account Settings.

If you’re an active Facebook user, be prepared for a large file. They will be sending your entire timeline, all the messages you’ve sent and received, every photo and video you’ve uploaded, and more.

My file, however, was not large at all, a zipped file of 74kb.

Although I registered for a Facebook account ten years ago, I’ve never posted anything in that time1 and very rarely comment on the posts of others. The only reasons I open the app a few times a month are to see the latest photos from friends and relatives, and to read new comics from Bloom County. I’m just not very social I guess.

In fact, the only even slightly interesting part of my Facebook data is in the Ads section, where we find a list of advertisers with my contact info. First advertiser: Cyndi Lauper. Farther down is Rod Stewart. Very odd.

The rest of the list includes a few companies I use regularly or from whom I’ve requested information. And many sites dealing with crowdfunding I’ve never heard of. I’m very sure I did not click on any ads for these firms in Facebook or on articles related to them.

All of which leads to a basic question: why did Facebook send my information to those advertisers? What did their algorithms find in my bland profile and very sparse timeline that lead to those matches? I suspect some of this data came from the harvesting Facebook does on other websites.

Anyway, check out the data Facebook has stored in your account. You may find something even more interesting.


The image is piles of old fashioned data taken by Michael Coghlan, posted to his Flickr account, and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Ok, maybe not never. I found one post I made in April 2010: “Still on my ongoing effort to figure out the appeal of Facebook and why I would want to spend time on it. At least the iPad makes it easier than than the iPhone app. :-)”. I’m still working on that.

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.