Monetizing privacy

“I’ve never looked through a keyhole without finding someone was looking back.” — Judy Garland

Today is a moment for a dose of privacy concerns. Many who know me know that I’m not as scared about privacy issues in social media as some others, but I’d like to rise some issues to your awareness that you might or might not know.

My brother sent me a link to a video (Does what happens in the FaceBook stay in the FaceBook) about privacy concerns regarding Facebook. According to the story, FaceBook knows a lot about its users, including but not limited to media consumption interests (movies, books, music), personal media productions (photos, videos, blogs), contact information (address, home town, phone number, email, IMs), organization memberships (work history, clubs, educational history, political affiliations), personal details (name, birthday, sexual orientation, interests, daily schedules, personal relationships) and so forth.

Third party application support fuels this onwards with new and innovative ways to extract information about Facebook users.

Even if you don’t proactively share this information, your friends will do it for you. They are constantly harassing you to reveal as much about yourself as possible with continuous streams of relationship confirmations and invitations to join certain activities where information about you is made public. Turning down such invitations from your friends is not a very nice thing to do either, so once you are a member, ignorance is often hard to maintain.

According to the terms of service, Facebook has the right to use this information world-wide without any restriction or your prior knowledge, even sell it. This is what you agree on when you sign up.

Of course this is nothing new. Google employs the same strategies to monetize your privacy. Google knows a lot about their users and uses that information to better target advertisements and information for personal interests.

They know your search history, what links you follow, what sites you view (where Google AdSense or Analytics is present), every email you send (Gmail), every instant messaging conversation (GTalk), every calendar appointment (Google Calendar), what you read (Google Reader), what you have on your hard-disk (Google Desktop), where and how you took your photos (Picasa), where you are going (Google Maps), what videos you watch (over 60% of online videos are watched on Youtube) and many other things. Soon they might have access to your radio and television consumption habits.

Recently they have bought a company that records your gaming style (e.g. aggressive) to better target advertisements inside or outside games. They create psychological profiles of their users. Recent Jaiku acquisition is interesting. Jaiku allows them to use your phone to retrieve information on where you are, who you are with, your status (e.g. busy) and what you are doing. The service you are using today might be part of Google tomorrow. If Google buys Amazon, Yahoo and eBay tomorrow, they will dominate the online world. They might even implant you with a chip that reads all your sensory input and brain activity.

There are a few great videos on the privacy issues related to Google: Master Plan – About the Power of Google and EPIC 2015. What is behind the screen?

Both Facebook and Google are very open about their pursuits to privatize your privacy and don’t even try to hide the facts. Both companies are trusted and loved by their users. We just love Google’s ability to figure out what we want.

Sounds like a lot of trouble. George Orwell’s 1984, surveillance during the cold war, WW2 and recent war against terrorism all come to mind. The difference this time around is that it’s not the state only, but private companies and every one of us. Recently I’ve often cited Marshall McLuhan, and I do so once again. In his conversation about the drawbacks of the Global Village:

Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library, the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.

I heard Pär Lannerö talk about Google in a conference recently. He noted that this time around the little brother of the big brother is you, the celebrated person of the year according to Time Magazine.

Congratulate yourself not just for your creativity, but also your contribution to the negative connotations of the global village.

None of this is going to be a problem if we can trust both Facebook and Google, just like Google’s motto goes, “do no evil”. But can we? What if governments force them to hand over information? What if they are already cooperating with authorities without your knowledge? What if someone steals information from their databases?

In February 2003 Total Information Awareness (TIA) project was started by the Department of Defence as a result of 9/11 to better be able to predict such terrorist attacks. Information Awareness Office’s mission was the following:

Imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness.

This mass-surveillance system was supposed to gather biometric data (face, finger prints, gait, iris), transactional data (banks, credit cards, money transmitters, casinos, brokerage firms), travel data (airlines, railroads, car rentals), medical histories, event participation histories, housing, communications (cell, landline, internet), ID information (passports, visas, work permits, driver’s licenses), gun purchases, internet activity, chemical purchases, criminal records and so forth.

This information was supposed to be linked together in ways that could detect suspicious activity. Due to privacy concerns the funding of this project was terminated in 2004, but the core of the system did survive.

Facebook investors can be traced back to TIA, CIA and other agencies. There are even rumors that Google is already cooperating with the authorities but take that with a grain of salt.

What if such systems are used to make a very convincing case against you by linking unrelated events together, where you have no way to prove otherwise? At Crete I discussed some of these issues with Erik Duval and he noted that this is fine as long as you have the ability to do the same for them. If the same data that Google, Facebook and other agencies utilize is open for everyone including you, then in a true democratic way both opinions can be heard and perspectives integrated. I stand on the same conclusion, we have to make sure that the data behind your online activities remains accessible by you.

Giving away privacy through social media has two implications that are the opposites sides of the same coin, the difference between an empowering light and total blinding darkness. Social media has the potential to become a place that fuels totalitarianism and disintegration of privacy. On the other hand, it has the keys to create a global mind sphere capable of learning and problem-solving on a massive scale never before seen in human history.

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  • Macandron

    I have to say I’m a bit scared after reading all of this, as well as this short story that offers a pretty plausible story of a “2084″ scenario. Only it might come true much earlier than that. I sincerely hope Google can hold on to its plea of “do no evil” as we all know how… persuasive the US government among others can be.

    I’m a bit scared of the future. I’m not at all sure how long we have left to live in a free world. We had best enjoy it while we can I guess.

    More needs to be talked about privacy issues. Good post.