The blog post “What should you think about when using Facebook?” by Data Scientist Vicky Boykis is a thorough - yet likely not even close to exhaustive - summary of various ways how Facebook tracks, monetises and manipulates its users. It has rightfully gained quite some visibility over the last few days. And I will be most happy to forward this text to all those who constantly question my strict policy of not using Facebook nor WhatsApp - maybe along with the video from Aral Balkan’s talk “Beyond The Camera Panopticon”.
Yet, as spooky as it may be to read for those to whom all this is new, the interesting phenomenon (backed by dozens of instances from the repeat evangelism I try to practice on this subject) is that a majority would only shrug their shoulders and keep on - supplying the database of one of the most powerful global corporations with terabytes of personal information for free: adding pictures of their minor children to a global image archive, implicitly sharing participant lists of events by feeding the creepiest face recognition network thinkable with photos to tag, engaging in private conversations over a surveillance network with unknown retention policies, etc.
One important aspect still deserving more attention falls slightly short in the article: the most obvious of data collected are the plain reading patterns. Even the most passive user (many concerned with their privacy on Facebook state to simply “just read, not share”) provides an astonishingly precise personality profile simply by revealing what they read - within the service, but also outside, where embedded media and beacons constantly “phone home”. (The use of such data is exemplarily illustrated using browser histories in the “Browsing Histories” project.)
Hence, reconsidering one’s own practice regarding personal data is, while a good first step, only exactly that: a first step; an absolute necessity on the individual level. Inspired by Boykis’ own conclusions I believe there is a need for a range of actions, in particular for professionals in the digital field, if we want to shape an alternative - human-centred and respectful - narrative of social technology:
- The development of socio-technological literacy among the general public needs more attention: while more and more are starting to understand they are being tracked, only few can see the significant implications, and even less have the ability to take personal countermeasures.
- Designers, developers and providers of digital services have to be more aware of the need to practice privacy-aware design (in combination with the previous point, protecting those unaware, this in the web context for example means: no social media beacons, considerate auto-embedding of media, and decentralised analytics); to design responsible technology, concepts like the minimum actionable dataset should be the starting point of every data collection practice.
- Regulators have to stop enforcing pointless cookie warnings on each and every website on the planet, instead focusing on the important parts that empower people to make their own choices: always requiring descriptive, layman-understandable terms and conditions, for instance.
- Writers, artists and activists must keep creating works like Boykis’ article or the “Data to Go” campaign, to make the implications of corporate data centralisation tangible and, as Balkan puts it, “creep people out”. As long as “privacy” is an abstract topic discussed in expert circles, there is no critical mass to force these corporations to change.
- Data scientists and researchers should adhere to an ethics policy for analysis and research, refusing to process data that has not been collected responsibly; just like “eco labels” mark food only containing ingredients from ecological farming (Boykis’ letter to Facebook recruiters is a great example of such policy on a personal level).
- Focus on creating decentralized alternatives for catering to people’s elementary communicational needs, such as for instance in the Indiweb movement, rather than just accepting the big corporate silos presenting themselves as the only viable means for online sociality.