Say what you want about Uber — the misogynist corporate culture, the casual arrogance, God View — its misdeeds quickly become known, and regulators take action. Arizona suspended the ride-hail giant’s license to drive autonomous vehicles in response to the death of a Tempe woman killed by a driver-less car going 38 miles per hour, for instance. And Travis Kalanick is long-gone. Progressive-minded people don’t punish Uber enough by deleting the app, but that’s a story for another day.
What people do seem to be deleting in droves — anecdotally, at least — is Facebook. In spite of his seriously-guys-I’m-human tour of the heartland, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been unable to put the issue of Russian trolls and the 2016 election to rest. It’s a little like Hillary and her emails, only not bullshit. After last week’s revelations that the social media empire essentially let a creepy company funded by right-wing billionaires hellbent on dystopia steal 50 million people’s information, the chorus of critics has become sharper in tone. Speaking in Beijing yesterday, even Apple CEO Tim Cook said “well-crafted regulation” of Facebook was “inevitable.” That comes on top of Elon Musk yanking the pages for his Tesla and SpaceX from the platform, and we have a remarkable outburst of billionaire-against-billionaire criticism. (Musk also said he’s sticking with Instagram, which Facebook owns, because it’s still “independent” — something that makes zero sense. Too late to write this into the newest season of Silicon Valley?)
As Joe Kukura wrote here a few days ago, this incident is not a hack and it’s not a breach. It’s not even an incident, since Facebook advertisers do it all the time, with the company’s blessing. Cambridge Analytica leveraged 270,000 downloads into a data sweep 200 times as large, and Facebook — the company that lectures people about a lack of “integrity” when they don’t use their birth name — treats such grotesque violations of trust and privacy as a vital revenue stream. You could almost shrug it off it were just targeted advertising for us to buy the right mattress, but we’re talking about psychological profiling that reshaped world history. That it was foreign nationals wading into an American election is just the icing on this burnt turd of a cake.
But the Associated Press had the scariest bit. Facebook tracks every picture you post, every comment you make, and everyone you friend and unfriend. Most people can probably live with that. But the company’s disembodied brain also collects things you type and delete without even posting, as well as lots of things you do outside of Facebook or even offline — and nowhere does the company mention that in its privacy policies. Pardon the lengthy excerpt, but this is chilling:
“If you start typing something and change your mind and delete it, Facebook keeps those and analyzes them too,” Zeynep Tufekci, a prominent techno-sociologist, said in a 2017 TED talk.
And, increasingly, Facebook tries to match what it knows about you with your offline data, purchased from data brokers or gathered in other ways. The more information it has, the fuller the picture of you it can offer to advertisers. It can infer things about you that you had no intention of sharing – anything from your ethnicity to personality traits, happiness and use of addictive substances, Tufekci said.
These types of data collection aren’t necessarily explicit in privacy policies or settings.
What Facebook does say is that advertisers don’t get the raw data. They just tell Facebook what kind of people they want their ads to reach, then Facebook makes the matches and shows the ads.
Apps can also collect a lot of data about you, as revealed in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The firm got the data from a researcher who paid 270,000 Facebook users to complete a psychological profile quiz back in 2014. But the quiz gathered information on their friends as well, bringing the total number of people affected to about 50 million.
Facebook says Cambridge Analytica got the data inappropriately – but only because the app said it collected data for research rather than political profiling. Gathering data on friends was permitted at the time, even if they had never installed the app or given explicit consent.
Rule by algorithm has a trillion problems, including a total lack of transparency or accountability. Unrelated to Facebook directly, there are issues where financial institutions determine creditworthiness in racially dubious ways — all under the guise of serene neutrality and a lack of human bias. But what seems value-neutral is actually just conscienceless, and the government has taken notice. The New York Times reports today that the F.T.C. is investigating whether Facebook violated a 2011 consent decree on its privacy policies. Even the fusty Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by 84-year-old Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley — a prolific if occasionally opaque tweeter — is getting involved. Then there’s this:
In the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, lawyers appealed two lawsuits that challenged the social media company’s privacy and user data policies. One lawsuit claims that Facebook violates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (Wiretap Act) and state law equivalents because of the way it monitors its users on and off the platform.
The second suit claims that Facebook has been capturing and selling the details of users’ browsing of third-party health sites. Any site with a Facebook “like” button, including those of medical institutions such as the American Cancer Society and the American Society of Clinical Oncology, could be used to track users as they browsed outside Facebook, according to the lawsuit.
They know every single thing about us, and they’re getting better at it every day because they’ve burrowed into the architecture of the entire internet. We’ll see what Facebook does in the context of its greatest blunder to date days after its crisis PR team foolishly thought they could ride this storm out. But if nothing else, we might see Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress, possibly either squirming like a kid or as impassive as an android.