Facebook and the Loss of Privacy

So Facebook is in trouble for having failed to secure all of the private information it gathers on virtually every citizen in the United States as well as most advanced nations of the world. The surprising thing is that it has taken this long for people to pull their heads out of their … well, for the sake of decorum … their smartphones long enough to realize that every nuance of their life has been surveilled, not by the National Security Agency (NSA) but by some smug geek in a gray tee shirt who now strides the world as a rock star – social media avatar, Mark Zuckerberg.

There is a dispute as to whether Mr. Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss but when they wound up with a $65 Million settlement the dispute decidedly tipped in the Winklevoss’ favor. Be that as it may, it would appear that Mr. Zuckerberg has significant skills as a “programmer” and has seized upon the idea that “social media” could mask a deceptive and highly intrusive commercial enterprise – selling information on users who unwittingly have opened their lives to serious exploitation.

My experience with Facebook went sour almost from the day I opened an account. My daughter informed that they had made the decision (and a wise one it appears to be) to keep our grandchildren off the internet in general and Facebook in particular because of the frequency with which stalkers, child molesters and various creeps prowl the social media outlets. The relatively small number of people I “friended” resulted in me being inundated with recipes, thoughts of the day, and cartoons – a few of which were actually funny. I no longer except new “friends” and instead communicate through other mediums my reasons.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Soon I started getting unsolicited emails and Facebook posting from a whole host of retailers. Then came the political ads. Soon half of my emails were either solicitations from retailers, politicians and charities or Facebook itself reminding me half a dozen times per day that “You have more friends waiting on Facebook” or “Find more of your friends on Facebook.”

You see, Facebook isn’t about sharing your life with selected friends and family. If it were Facebook wouldn’t provide its “social media” platform for free. It would be broke over night. No, Facebook is a highly lucrative enterprise that gathers personal information from its unwitting subscribers and, through the magic of computers and algorithms, recasts it into a profile of its users and sells that profile to its real customers: retailers, financial institutions, politicians, domestic governments, foreign governments, terrorists – you name it. They all have access to the information you unwittingly provide. (The same can be said for Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and a laundry list of others occupying the ambiance of social media.) Just to reiterate as Facebook users you are not its customers – you are simply information providers. Its customers are those who buy your processed information for what turns out to be billions of dollars each year. Information that you give to them for free. (According to Facebook’s Investor Relations, gross revenues in 2017 grew nearly fifty percent from $26.8 Billion in 2016 to $39.9 Billion in 2017.)

I have raised this issue with friends and family and the general response is that they are not worried because they have nothing to hide. But what they fail to understand, and to date I have been anemic in defining, is that through the magic of computers and algorithms, Facebook converts that “innocent” data into deep profiles that would shake the core of users if they actually knew the depth of the profiles or the uses to which they are put. The algorithms used by these social media “peeping toms” produce affinities and correlations not about what you do but rather what you are likely to do – what you are susceptible to doing. Some of these affinities are quite innocent, others more sinister. These algorithms are not accurate predictors of behavior but rather merely indicators and the innocent and the guilty are treated the same. And it gets worse because the users of this data resell it without your knowledge, permission or control. Again this applies not just to Facebook but to virtually all of those who mine, manipulate and sell data on users.

But that’s not where it ends. Because of the open access to these services, we now see that governments (e.g. Russia) use them to sow misinformation, deceit and conflict. Others (e.g. ISIS, Taliban, al-Qaeda, etc.) to recruit, communicate with, and give instructions to domestic terrorists. Even the politicians use these services to spread misinformation, sully opponents and overstate their qualifications for fund raising purposes. And they sell that data to other politicians. Several years ago we donated to a Republican senate campaign committee. Almost immediately we were outraged to learn that the money was distributed in part to such low lives as Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and later Sen. John McCain (R-AZ. We informed the committee that we would no longer donate to it for those very reasons. And yet, to date we get inundated with emails, flyers, and phone calls soliciting funds for this or that Republican – they sold the information.

It’s not like Mr. Zuckerberg and his minions were unaware of the problems created by social media in general and Facebook in particular. Internal memoranda indicate that they were well aware of the addictive roll that social media could play in people’s lives and yet they not only remained silent, they actually sought to capitalize on that addiction – the more that people used the service, the more data was created, the more information Facebook was able to gather, amalgamate and sell to the host of reputable and disreputable customers alike.

They were also aware that it introduced a new form of harassment –cyber bullying – and that children – among the most frequent users of social media – were the most vulnerable. Again they remained silent while they built the size of the user base and user data. Having played a major role in creating cyber bullying, they issued press releases decrying the practice externally while internally justifying the practice as a price to pay. Facebook has even dedicated funds to combat cyber bullying but it is a weak response to a problem that it helped create. It reminds me of the pittance that the State of Oregon siphons of liquor and gambling revenue to combat the addictions that each creates.

The intentions of Mr. Zuckerberg and his leadership team at Facebook are best captured by comments from members of that leadership team. FOX News reported:

“During an interview at the Stanford Graduate School of Business last month, Palihapitiya said social media is damaging the fabric of society, adding that he felt ‘tremendous guilt’ for helping the company become the behemoth it is today.

“’It literally is at a point now we’ve created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,’ said Palihapitiya, who now runs the venture capital firm Social Capital and is a co-owner of the Golden State Warriors.

CBS reported that a memorandum by Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth, in a self-serving justification noted:

“A memo sent to Facebook (FB) employees two years ago is putting the social media giant back in the headlines Thursday in the wake of its monumental data privacy scandal affecting 50 million of its users. In the June 18, 2016, memo, by Facebook vice president Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth outlined the lengths the company’s tools would affect the public all in the name of growing the company — including the possibility that it could lead to someone’s death. That prompted Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to issue a statement saying he disagrees with the memo, internally called “The Ugly.”

In the memo, Bosworth wrote: We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.”

Bosworth also wrote ‘So we connect more people … that can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies … maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.’”

“’We do have great products but we still wouldn’t be half our size without pushing the envelope on growth,”’he wrote. ‘The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.’”

Mr. Zuckerberg has, in the aftermath, sought to distance Facebook and himself from these comments but the reality is that they reflect more of what Facebook has done than what it says.

But all of this is representative of Mr. Zuckerberg himself. It appears he created Facebook, by using somebody else’s idea. He cannot stand any disagreement with his practices – in fact, when he took Facebook public he structured the stock in two classes so that he remains singularly and absolutely in control of all aspects of the company. Like most liberal/progressives, Mr. Zuckerberg prefers to use someone’s (his investors) money for his great ideas without significant accountability. Despite the fact that Mr. Zuckerberg has only sixteen percent of the stock he has a super majority of the voting rights. The directors and shareholders of Facebook are all subordinate to Mr. Zuckerberg.

So what do you do? Well, you can quit Facebook. I was in the process of doing just that. But a better solution presented itself in Tuesday’s addition of the Wall Street Journal in a front page article by Heidi Vogt:

“When news of an enormous Facebook breach broke last month, Chris Wellens couldn’t help feeling a little smug. After all, nearly all the information the technology executive had given the social media giant was false.

“Consumers, wary of how their information is being used, lie about everything from names to birth dates to professions when companies ask for personal details online. Some are worried about identity theft, some just want to protect their privacy and some hope to fool advertisers by intentionally mucking up the databases used to target ads.

“While Ms. Wellens does use her real name on Facebook, she lies about nearly everything else: ‘It says that I graduated from Trinity College in Dublin. I’ve never been to Ireland. It says my undergraduate degree is in gymnastics. Anyone who knows me knows that is laughable, because I’m not very physically flexible.’”

That’s right. Just lie. After all, this is not the government, this is just some smug geek in a gray tee shirt. But you have to lie intelligently because like everything else, Facebook has algorithms to detect fake information. But even if they do what is the worst that could happen – they ban you from Facebook? That may be easier than actually trying to disengage from Facebook. And if you are successful, as many will be, it will make the information that Facebook and its algorithms glean from you inherently unreliable and, therefore, less marketable. Hits them where they live.

This week I will be working on my “new profile.”