This week, the scale of the identity hijacking by companies using data from Facebook accounts without consent was revealed. The old adage that information is power has never been truer. Amanda Cassidy examines the slow eroding of our privacy and asks who is watching the watchmen?
It all started with Old MacDonald and his zoological farm. We were in the car with the children doing the various animal noises from the song when my son suggested I be the elephant. My pathetic attempt gave everyone a good laugh for a good few miles, and I became the running joke for the weekend, with urges of 'Do the elephant again! It's just sooo bad!' Then, that Monday morning, I noticed that my Instagram feed had switched from advertising baby carriers and other family products, to elephant sanctuary commercials. It's not that I didn't want to save those poor elephants, it's just that I felt every so slightly violated. Over on my Facebook feed, similar magic was at work. Subtle but by now noticeable, ads for elephant-themed wallpaper for children's rooms, an elephant safari, an appeal that I adopt an elephant.
We all know by now that what we search for online will be advertised back to us, but how deep into our personal lives are we being targeted? Google and Facebook have always rejected accusations that they are listening to our conversations to advertise to us. This doesn’t mean they aren’t listening - and by listening we mean a sophisticated algorithm that chooses keywords to tailor advertising to us based on conversations we've had within earshot of our phones. Coincidence maybe? But there have been a lot of coincidences recently that has made me want to examine further. I asked my son to be careful of the door-stop at a recent play centre and a day later I noticed a sponsored post on Facebook suggesting different kinds of door-stops. That isn't exactly the type of thing I've been searching for online - no more than saving some poor elephants.
The level of commercial penetration that has begun seeping into our lives is frightening. Facebook owns WhatsApp and Instagram. Google owns YouTube and Google Maps. These are platforms we use every single day and they have an awful lot of information about us. Whether we like it or not, these companies are using our information to their advantage. We give up information online to make life more convenient; Internet banking, our location for GPS, we upload pictures of our food, we monitor our heart rate, we use online calendars. Michelle De Mooy is the acting director of the US Centre for Technology's Privacy and Data Project. She told Digital Trends that it is not an exaggeration to describe our Smartphones as 'small tracking devices'.
“We may not think of them like that because they’re very personal devices — they travel with us, they sleep next to us. But they are in fact collectors of a vast amount of information including audio information.”
Manipulation in advertising is nothing new. The psychology behind supermarket music or how different colours and heights can affect our buying power is fascinating but largely inconsequential. You may feel like there are worse things than relevant ads being targetted at us individually, but the implications run a lot deeper than that. At a time when the issue of consent and transparency are finally being appreciated, it is hard not to conclude that we are being swindled when it comes to exactly what is being done with the vast amounts of data being collected about us.
Up until now, we've mostly viewed it as a trade-off. We get to use a free service like free instant messaging or a social media platform that we don't have to pay for. Except we do - we are paying for it with our information and we are largely unaware of how valuable that really is. The other issue is that because the data collected on us reflects what we are being exposed to online, our reality is being distorted. Each of us is seeing a different feed based on our information. That means you might see different job suggestions based on your gender or be targetted with certain products because you are part of a specific ethnic group.
Here in Ireland, our right to privacy is guaranteed both in our own Constitution and on a European Level. The State promises to respect and defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen. This right to privacy has been hard fought and it is more than just a slight annoyance when it is violated. Why is it so special? Privacy is a limit on other people's power over us - government power, private companies. The old adage that information is power has never been truer. Our personal information is used to make important decisions in our lives - it can affect our reputation, to influence our decisions and manipulate our behaviour. It is a tool to exercise control over us and that means in the wrong hands, our own information can be used against us.
Tip of the iceberg
Until now, we have been delighted to give it all away for free to share cute kitten videos with our friends, show off on our holidays and showcase that revenge body to all and asunder. But now the privacy cat is completely out of the bag, it is very hard to row back. Facebook knows it, Google knows it and as Mark Zuckerberg begins his penance for allowing such massive data breaches on his watch, we can expect more of the same to slowly reveal itself. It is not an exaggeration to say that this is the tip of the iceberg.
This week Mark Zuckerberg already admitted that Facebook reads 'private' messages on its messaging service. The Guardian reports that Facebook logged the text messages and phone calls of its users before it notified them. Nowhere in the opt-in dialogue was it explained that phone calls and text messages would be uploaded to Facebook's servers and stored indefinitely. Facebook is the only one being mentioned because it is such a giant - the chances are that hundreds of smaller companies are also taking advantage of the explosion of data we are almost greedily giving away.
Of course, for the most part, it is highly unlikely that companies are going to harvest our data completely uninvited. But it’s still not clear what’s happening to our data once it is collected. Even if you take the time to read privacy policies, which few people do, it’s often difficult to decipher them. The rapid advance of digital technology has given rise to a brand new field known as data science. The issue is that we are a little late out of the traps when it comes to what it means to have our data harvested and fed back to us, with a twist. Privacy is about more than just respecting an individual, it is also about trust. Breaches of confidentiality are breaches of that trust.
Such information trading is a jolting reality, but so dependent we are on our phone and the Internet in general, it is unlikely we are going to throw away our phones and create 'safe rooms' in our homes. But what we can do is educate ourselves as to the level of information we are allowing private companies to take from us. We can start reading the fine print and questioning how much of our personal information we are uploading into the ether. We can review the permissions we have already granted to apps and be aware of just how many have requested microphone access or the selling of information to a third party. At the end of the day, we have every right to know where our information is being used and for what purpose.
We need to place more emphasis on the value of privacy in our lives and to remember, once it is gone, we may never get it back.