Facebook is on the ropes. A week of revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s use of data gleaned from the social network has left the world demanding answers. The company can’t seem to decide: is it outraged that it was taken advantage of by an unscrupulous actor, or relieved that this is just normal use of tools that it made widely available for almost five years? Should Mark Zuckerberg come out front and centre leading the response, or should he hide in a cupboard until it all blows over? Faced with its first true crisis, the company is paralysed with fear. And that paralysis is, remarkably quickly, leading people to reassess their relationship with the site as a whole. The teens got there first. Facebook usage among younger people has been declining for years, in the face of competition from upstart rivals such as Snapchat, internal disruption from Facebook-owned Instagram, and a general sense that Facebook is full of old people and parents. But the backlash isn’t a generational thing anymore. We’re all losing control of our data, both online and off, and we’re starting to kick back. Not only is the burgeoning #deletefacebook movement picking up steam (although it will take a few weeks before hard numbers are available about how many have followed through on their words), but people are also beginning to look up, as if from a daydream, to ask: how exactly did we end up in this situation? Why did we give up our privacy so willingly? And how can we get it back?
The 50m profiles harvested from Facebook by a Cambridge Analytica partner under the guise of research are a huge data store, but they pale in comparison with the amount of information the company holds on its users. At the same time that Facebook turned off the spigot that had been used to pump industrial quantities of data of its platform, the company opened up the second set of floodgates: the Facebook Audience Network, which allows third parties to track, profile and advertise to Facebook users wherever they find them on the internet. Facebook isn’t a social network. It’s barely even an advertising company. It’s a data analytics firm, which manages to use its position as the middleman for a vast proportion of all human communication to find out everything there is to know about its users. Just as Cambridge Analytica claimed enormous powers of perception with a scant selection of personal information, Facebook also boasts to advertisers about how much it knows about its users – and how effective it can be in influencing their minds: it cites a games company that “made video adverts to match different gamer styles” for a “63% increase in purchase intent”; a clothes retailer that achieved “a dramatic increase in sales” with “richly personalised ads”; and a mobile network that scored “a major boost in awareness and purchase intent” by focusing on users with families. (Facebook used to have a similar page on which it showed off to politicians about how effective it was at swinging elections, but it quietly removed that in February.)
If you think you’re a passive user of Facebook, minimising the data you provide to the site or refraining from oversharing details of your life, you have probably underestimated the scope of its reach. Facebook doesn’t just learn from the pictures you post, and the comments you leave: the site learns from which posts you read and which you don’t; it learns from when you stop scrolling down your feed and how long it takes you to restart; it learns from your browsing on other websites that have nothing to do with Facebook itself; and it even learns from the messages you type out then delete before sending (the company published an academic paper on this “self-censorship” back in 2013). This data life isn’t limited to Facebook. Google, famously, is in the same basic business, although the company is a bit more transparent about it (for a shock, try going to the “My Activity” and “Location History” pages to be vividly reminded that Google is tracking everything). And Amazon is building a modern surveillance panopticon, replete with an always-on microphone for your kitchen and a jaunty camera for your bedroom, purely to sell you more stuff.
Avoiding the big players doesn’t help much. Large data brokers such as Experian and Equifax exist to collate information about everyone, whether or not they’re online. The security services continue to build their surveillance databases, with powers strengthened in the UK through the recent Investigatory Powers Act. Even going to church now comes with the potential for a dose of surveillance: the Church of England has authorised the roll-out of 14,000 contactless card readers, to let parishioners give without carrying cash. Is it time to say goodbye to the anonymity of the collection plate, and hope you’re one of the more generous donors? Richard Stallman has been warning of this state of affairs since before Zuckerberg even touched his first computer. The veteran computer scientist, the creator of the GNU operating system and leader of the Free Software Movement, warns that “the only database that is not dangerous is the one that is never collected. There is a limit on the level of surveillance that democracy can co-exist with, and we’re far above that,” he tells me on the phone from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We suffer more surveillance than the inhabitants of the Soviet Union, and we need to push it way down. Any database of personal data will be misused if a misuse can be imagined by humans. It can be misused by the organisation that collects the data. In many cases, the purpose of collecting it is to misuse it, as in the case of Facebook, but also in the case of Amazon, Google to some extent, and thousands of smaller companies as well. It can also be misused by rogue employees of the company, and it can also be stolen by some third party and misused. There’d be no danger of data breaches if a database doesn’t exist. And, finally, it can be taken by the state and misused.” Stallman has little sympathy for those who choose to use such services. “They’re foolish,” he says when I ask him why he thinks data harvesting is tacitly accepted by so many people. “They’re accustomed to a certain kind of convenience … they choose to ignore that it might be dangerous.”
I’m less certain that there’s a choice being made at all, though. Yes, people may regularly be accepting terms and conditions that require them to give up their data, but that doesn’t mean they read them. I should know: I have. A few years ago, I decided to read, in full, the small print for every single product or service I used. I read almost 150,000 words of legalese – three-quarters of Moby Dick – in less than a week, from the 21,000 words required to turn off the alarm on my iPhone on a Monday morning to the 4,000 words required to browse BuzzFeed in my lunch break. The experience was gruesome. Legal documents are not written to be read by humans, and certainly not to be read back-to-back in a harrowing marathon of End-User Licence Agreements. But I did learn one thing, which is that the modern notion of consent upon which the entire data edifice is built has the shakiest of foundations. Lukasz Olejnik, an independent security and privacy researcher, agrees, “Years ago, people and organisations used to shift the blame on the users, even in public. This blaming is unfortunate because expecting users to be subject-matter experts and versed in the obscure technical aspects is misguided. Blaming users is an oversimplification, as most do not understand the true implications when data are shared – they cannot. You can’t expect people to fully appreciate the amount of information extracted from aggregated datasets. That said, you can’t expect users to know what is happening with their data if it’s not communicated in an informed consent prompt, which should result in some cases also include the consequences of hitting ‘I agree’.” He adds that at many organisations, privacy was not being taken seriously, “except when there was a need to include the phrase ‘We take the privacy of our users very seriously’ following a data breach.”
It doesn’t have to be like this. Doctors are required to demonstrate not just consent, but informed consent, from patients: the latter have to understand what they agree to, or the agreement is moot. After years of miss-selling scandals, the same principle is slowly making its way to the financial industry. Logging in to check an ISA, you may be confronted with a 12-point questionnaire designed to check you understand the risks and are happy for the investment to continue. Yet online, the biggest companies in the world base their businesses around users hitting “I agree” on a dialogue box on a website once, a decade ago, and then never being told what their agreement entails, nor being offered any way to retract their consent and take back control of the information they gave up.
Change is coming. In the EU, the General Data Protection Regulation – GDPR – overhauls a continent’s worth of rules around a clear principle that the only person who can ever own an individual’s data is that individual. Olejnik describes the law as a “good starter”, but notes that even it will still need to be “reviewed and updated on a regular basis.” Stallman wants to go one step further. “I recommend a law prohibiting any system that collects data,” he says, “no matter who runs it, whether it’s a company, some non-profit organisation, or a public agency, whatever, that they are not allowed to collect data unless they can justify it as necessary for the function to be done.” It would be a huge step and one that is unlikely to come without a radical change in how the public views mass data collection. But he has hope and rejects the label of a Cassandra, doomed with accurate predictions that will always be ignored. “I don’t know the future because the future depends on you, so I’m going to try my damn best,” he says. “I’m a pessimist by nature. But just because things look dim, is no reason to give up. And that’s what I’ve been saying for many, many years.”
Credit: Alex Hern for The Guardian, 21 March 2018.