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March 21, 2013 10:30 AM Why Spy When You Can Facebook?

By Emily Menkes

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg unfurled the latest changes to Facebook. Soon, the platform’s one billion users can all enjoy a ‘personalized newspaper’, with the newsfeed transformed into an aggregated interface that provides more relevant information, faster. The newsfeed will now feature larger photos, minimal design, and can be sorted into categories. Third-party apps, videos and shared articles will also get more prominence and larger logos.

The changes have been well received and anticipated by users and advertising companies alike, with the main criticism being the financial incentives at play. However, advertising revenue is not the only area to benefit from this transformation; now data companies will be flooded with reams of new personal information and preferences.

This new personalized Facebook ‘newspaper’ is the most recent, and sophisticated, avenue of data mining to enter the social media lexicon. I can testify to this, having spent some time exploring the new features of the newsfeed. It is user-friendly, and aesthetically pleasing, encouraging input from its users to be part of this new fashionable feature.

Most people have a basic understanding of data mining, but the indignation that is warranted manifests less than one might expect. Many of the sites I visited researching this issue were laden with comments, all variations on the same theme, they were aware it happened, but indifferent towards it. The standard quip was something akin to “well I’m not doing anything wrong, so I don’t care if they know what I’m doing”.

The simple ethics behind compiling massive collections of data has previously been the subject of conversation in Congress, especially in regards to how it is used to combat terrorism, with pledges to scrutinize its domestic uses. The pledge to scrutiny was replaced in the Senate by calls for greater utilization of data mining, Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer, in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords. This hair-trigger response to identifying potential threats has meant the government’s consideration of the implications of data-mining has been arguably scant.

The apparent apathy of the public and the enthusiasm of government has allowed sites like Facebook to get away with degrees of surveillance that are increasingly Orwellian. Any backlash that occurred I felt to be disproportionate to the level of intrusion. As an example, Facebook’s privacy policy previously stated, “We may use information about you that we collect from other sources, including but not limited to newspapers and Internet sources such as blogs, instant messaging services and other users of Facebook, to supplement your profile.” It has since been removed, but this upcoming newspaper feature, and its aggregation of external sites, seems like a way to regain wider access to users’ information.

A second clause in Facebook’s privacy policy takes the issue a step further, with the elements of Big Brother now mixed with Big Corporation. The current version of the policy states:

In order to provide you with useful social experiences off of Facebook, we occasionally need to provide General Information about you to preapproved third party websites and applications that use Platform at the time you visit them (if you are still logged in to Facebook). Similarly, when one of your friends visits a preapproved website or application, it will receive General Information about you so you and your friend can be connected on that website as well (if you also have an account with that website).

This clause has been crafted to appear as though selling personal information has been a selfless move made by Facebook, in order to maximize the enjoyment of the user and the convenience of the experience. Not only does this serve the company’s financial interests, it also potentially gives them considerable political power. The extent of which has not be wielded so far, because of the controversy it would cause. It was well publicized that last year’s Obama and Romney campaigns were wider-reaching and more effective because data-mining was thoroughly utilized by both strategy teams.

As the focus and use of data mining in government shifts away from identifying potential terrorists to swing voters, the question is prompted of what other uses politicians can find in the masses of data, to exploit for their own political gain. The plethora of potential political uses of data mining is vast. This untapped information wealth is possibly why regulatory investigation in the US has been less comprehensive, more theoretical and benign than privacy advocates like myself would hope.

Having the personal information of one billion people has various implications, consequences and uses. Greater attention is needed as to how it can be used, the responsibility it incurs, and from where it is accessed. With any luck, Facebook’s newest feature may prompt the public to finally understand the extent of this: the realization that their personal life is no longer so.

Emily Menkes is an intern at the Washington Monthly.

Comments

  • thisdave on March 20, 2013 6:25 PM:

    How do I opt out from any or all of that?

  • TG on March 20, 2013 9:25 PM:

    My workaround: use one browser solely for FB activity, and a separate browser for all other general-purpose web surfing (copying links from FB to the other browser as needed). I don't "like" pages unless I really don't care how that info will be used, and I don't provide FB with personal info (employment history, birthplace, etc.). I have not (yet) gone to the trouble of dedicating one email address only to FB, so some of my activities can probably still be correlated if they want to go to that trouble, but my general-purpose browser is set to ignore most tracking elements and scripts.

  • Mimikatz on March 22, 2013 11:41 AM:

    Pretty simple. Don't join Facebook. Although as I understand it, it is hard to get out once you are in. Some people even forego shopping online. Convenience comes with a high price.