Showing posts with label privacy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label privacy. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Facebook and Division by Data in the Digital Age

(Image: theodysseyonline.com)

“The world is now awash in data and we can see consumers in a lot clearer ways.”
Max Levchin (PayPal co-founder)

There was a time not too long ago when people from all walks of life gathered around the proverbial water cooler in offices, places of worship, community centers, schools, local sporting events or watering holes. This ritual was underpinned by a shared experience based on a national or local conversation or a cultural artifact like a popular new book, advertisement or TV show that everyone had recently experienced.

It was not that people gathered around and sang Kumbaya, but that we brought a variety of viewpoints relating to the same event. I remember such gatherings being a melting pot of diverse perspectives, and passionate opinions; some that we vehemently agreed with and others we disagreed with, equally vehemently. But irrespective of where we stood on an issue, we all walked away without animosity and with a perspective we would not have otherwise had.

I am not suggesting that we left with changed minds or that we were competing to bring others around to our point of view, but that by listening, discussing and accepting the fact that there are different reactions to exactly the same content, it allowed us to build empathy and I believe helped to open minds in the long run; and being face-to-face they were also civil and respectful.

The internet, with its ability to turn the planet into a virtual global square, was meant to be the ultimate water cooler and bring us even closer together through diverse and shared experiences on a scale unimaginable before, but the opposite has transpired.

In country after country, social media feeds and discussion forums are filled with disagreement and hate. Once respected members of society like journalists, academics and scholars are engaging in shouting matches on TV screens, while family members are unfriending each other on social media. Research shows that this generation is more lonely and unhappy than any before it.

Nobody seems willing to entertain or discuss a point of view slightly different from their own. We have lost the ability for nuanced conversation and seem only to find comfort in absolutism. And we have eroded our ability to empathise with those who do not share our finite and inflexible worldviews.

It’s as if we have all stopped talking to each other, and now only talk at each other. What happened?

To begin with, it is true that we no longer reside in neighborhoods populated with a broad mix people from different walks of life. Increasingly we live, work and socialize only with people with similar income and educational backgrounds. The majority of educated urbanites have long stopped attending places of worship or congregating in local centers where they might still fraternize with a wider cross-section of society and viewpoints.

Even online we have retreated into echo chambers and digital fortresses filled with similarly-minded people, and our social rituals have been replaced with impersonal digital ones. We chat with friends on WhatsApp, visit grandma on Skype and share all significant milestones with extended family through email and social media.

While it is true income and educational segregation have been in part responsible for our growing divide, I believe that digital targeting technology, invented by the advertising and social media industry, along with the growing sophistication of how much data is being used, has contributed to our loss of empathy, inability to compromise and increasing vitriol. Not only are massive amounts of personal data being accumulated, but it is being used to divide people into groups and to manipulate behaviour.

Every advertiser and marketer has always wanted to connect with customers on a more personal level, but it was never possible to talk to us on a one-to-one basis until recently. The sophistication of digital technology allows companies to monitor every keystroke, eye movement, voice command, even physical movement, and, more worryingly, they are now able to put it all together to create a startlingly granular and deeply accurate view of our daily lives, habits and motivations on an individual level.

Like most innovations, this type of data accumulation was done for targeting of products and to deliver personalised content; so people would no longer waste time looking at diaper ads when they wanted to buy shoes. The idea was to accumulate so much data about each individual that it would allow marketers to get so precise that they would always show the right ad, with the right product message, or right piece of content, at the very moment we were looking for it.

Sounds great in theory, but nobody considered the dangerous and unintended consequences of such sophisticated tracking and predictive algorithms that now power every website, internet service and mobile app. Or the ability to use it for things other than selling us shoes and diapers.

What started as an advertising tool has now grown into an information arms race with numerous companies accumulating more and more personal data on each of us without any transparency, independent or third party oversight. People do not have the ability to opt-out and nobody has a clear idea of how this data is being used or with whom it is being shared.

Granted, most advertisers still use personal data to sell more shoes or diapers, but because the use of this technology has proliferated far beyond marketing and media and is used by virtually every industry and by governments, it has greatly increased the potential for information to fall into the wrong hands, and to be used to manipulate and influence behaviour of individuals and groups.

We need look no further than the 2016 US election. We know the effectiveness with which state-sponsored Russian actors used ad-targeting technology on platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter and other sites to target, test and fine-tune messages that spread various bits of misinformation. Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that briefly worked with Trump’s election team, legally bought and harvested personal data of 50 million Facebook users (and their friends) from an academic who had built a Facebook app, to influence and manipulate voting behaviour.

It is important to understand just how sophisticated targeting technology is today. Anyone can accurately target the 38 year old baseball loving, Democrat voting, Budweiser drinking and Nike shoe collector on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, as well as their Grandma in Bhopal, India. The targeting is both granular and precise.

In addition, you can exclude people by age, ethnicity, religious belief or political affiliation, thereby ensuring efficacy of your message among only like-minded people. Additionally, I could ensure that the message I show grandma is not even seen by her neighbours, even when they are all on the same page on the same website or watching the same TV show (known as addressable TV).

This is what I refer to as division by data, when data is used to segment and sub-segment every section of the population, with each segment further refined with more granular data until it gets down to an individual level based on which algorithms decide “what” to show people.

What this means is that what I see on my Facebook newsfeed is not what my wife, my neighbour or colleague sees. With addressable TV, companies can show different ads to different people in the same area code and building while they are watching the same programs. The same is true of our Twitter feed, news, iTunes and Netflix recommendations and even Google search.

Ask a liberal and a conservative friend to type in the exact same search query, e.g. global warming, on their respective computers and see how different the results and ‘facts’ they get are. I urge every skeptic to read this article about an experiment conducted by Dr. Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology: “Epstein conducted five experiments in two countries to find that biased rankings in search results can shift the opinions of undecided voters. If Google tweaks its algorithm to show more positive search results for a candidate, the searcher may form a more positive opinion of that candidate.”

Consider that Facebook has become the primary “source of news for 44% of Americans” and now boasts over two billion active users worldwide and Google is what the world relies on to search for news, information and facts, and both are driven by this underlying ‘personalisation and targeting’ philosophy that I call division by data. Think about the fact that the greatest source of influence on human minds is still the power of persuasion - one that is driven by repeated exposure to the same message.

This is where the notion of using data obsessively to personalise everything down to the individual level has gone horribly wrong. By treating human beings like objects and dividing them into ever smaller groups that only see content, information, news and even ‘facts’ uniquely tailored and created based on their preferences and biases, we might manage to increase ad sales, but we also increase societal divisions by reducing the ability to find common ground on issues.

In the digital age, we have effectively replaced our real and proverbial water coolers with bottles of water that can be dynamically flavoured to meet individual tastes, and with this hyper-precise targeting we have ensured that we no longer have shared experiences that human beings have relied on for centuries as a way to build bonds that lead to diversity of thought and open-mindedness.

This is a solvable problem, but until we find ways to restore our water coolers in the digital age and craft sensible new regulations on data privacy, sharing and targeting, we will continue to weaken every democracy and hamper our shared progress. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Facebook, Fiefdoms, Privacy and the Potential for Abuse

(Image credit: churchm.ag)
 
“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” 
Gabriel García Márquez

Let’s start by asking ourselves a simple question; what value does Facebook provide to society?

I can already hear people say 'wait a minute', and start to argue that Facebook informs, entertains, connects, and allows us to stay in touch with family and friends. Facebook is a social sharing platform that connects people. However, unlike a Warby Parker or Unilever, it does not make or sell any tangible products to improve our health or well-being.

It is true that the same can be argued about eBay, Alibaba and Airbnb. They don’t manufacture goods, but merely facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers. However, Alibaba is an online mall where third parties sell products and Airbnb’s service fills a real-world need for accommodation.

With Facebook there is one fundamental difference - you and I are the product.

Without user-generated content and our friends and family engaging with it, Facebook makes and offers nothing. It is entirely powered by our routines, my stories, your creativity, and our combined curation of third party news and articles we post. Facebook is powered by you and me.

And their entire revenue model is based on effectively mining, stealing (through an opaque privacy policy) and selling our personal information to advertisers; arguably they provide no meaningful benefit to society. As for connecting us, we already did all this, through letters, movies, television, travel, newspapers and phone calls, much before Facebook existed.

Technology has certainly made it easier to connect and as a result we have all become lazier about making the effort to stay in touch; but let’s be clear that there is no innovation in terms of how we share, build relationships or create emotional bonds that Facebook has invented.

Consider that the non-technological version of the online platform existed for millennia in the form of Roman marketplaces and even modern day malls where people broke bread, socialised and had the ability shop from multiple vendors, all under one roof.

Facebook says they offer a forum to express ourselves freely and in saying that they pretend to empower us. They claim to be a democratic and open platform designed “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (source: Facebook Mission), when in reality and behind the scenes, they are doing exactly the opposite.

They have been caught manipulating our newsfeed, by showing overwhelmingly negative or positive posts and using us as lab rats to be “part of a psychological study to examine how emotions can be spread on social media.” (Source: New York Times article).

More recently an employee claimed they routinely censor right-wing content…” (Source: PC Mag article).  Another tech consultant who worked there disclosed that “Facebook collects all content that is typed into its website, even if it is not posted…” (Source: Information Age article).

More worryingly, earlier this year the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was starting to spread its tentacles into the personal lives of non-Facebook users; going well beyond the four walls of their own platform by tracking people all over the web under the guise of showing more targeted ads. “Now Facebook plans to collect information about all Internet users, through “like” buttons and other pieces of code present on Web pages across the Internet.(source: Wall Street Journal).

On the heels of this announcement, we found out that WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014, is going to start sharing personal user information that includes your phone number, contact list and status messages with Facebook (Source: Scroll India article). This after WhatsApp had unequivocally promised that it would protect users' privacy when they agreed to be purchased by Facebook. You can read the WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum’s blog post and 2014 promise about how “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA…”

Facebook has also announced that they are going to crack down on ad blockers and click bait headlines to make room for more advertising. They intend to do this by “making its advertisements indistinguishable from the status updates, photo uploads, and other content that appears in your news feed” (Source: PC Mag article). They justified this change with the now all too familiar refrain that because Facebook is a free service, they rely on advertising to keep them going.

A free service that claims unlimited ownership of and rights use every status update, family picture and personal video. A free service that believes it has a right to mine personal data, track people around the web, and then sell all that information to third parties (in non-transparent ways). A free service that stores personal data “…for as long as it is necessary to provide products and services to you and others…” and one that defines their collection of information in the broadest terms possible; “Things you do and information you provide. Things others do and information they provide. Your networks and connections. Information about payments. Device information. Information from websites and apps that use our Services. Information from third-party partners. Facebook companies.” (Source: Facebook Privacy Policy). Free indeed!

I understand that we need to give up some privacy in a digitally connected world, particularly where we expect things for free. But there also need to be rules around what is permissible and what crosses the line. Beyond privacy, the greater issue is that so much information concentrated in the hands of one or two companies makes conditions ripe for abuse.

The point is not whether Mark Zuckerberg is trustworthy or if he truly has noble intentions. Nor am I suggesting that Facebook is an evil corporation run by hobbit in a hoodie. Facebook has already been caught abusing their power numerous times from manipulating the newsfeed to using sophisticated algorithms to pick, choose and limit news, articles, politics, entertainment and information we are able to see and share.

Like every other global corporation in history, they are not immune from the temptation to abuse power in the search for growth, expansion and profits. Their misleading and altruistically packaged attempt to create a walled off internet, with a Facebook monopoly, in the developing world is yet another example of business intentions gone totally awry. You can read my piece about it here “How Facebook Can Fix Internet.org”.

Think about the fact that, with 1.7 billion active users (a number that continues to grow), they have greater influence than any government or news organisation has ever had over our worldview. They have more personal information and greater power than the Soviet Union had on its people at the height of communism. This should concern all of us.

The point is that no single company should hold this kind of power and influence over so many people. It will not end well; human beings are corrupted by absolute power. We cannot change the nature of the beast.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Patriot Act, Terrorism and the Irrationality of Fear (Part 1)

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
James Madison

I believe most can agree that, no matter what your stance on national security, terrorism is and always will be a heinous and cowardly act of violence committed against innocent people, motivated by political, religious or social fanaticism. However, how we chose to let our government protect us and how we decide to fight this cowardly and invisible enemy is a choice we must make. 

The questions we have to ask ourselves are: How many hard-fought freedoms are we willing to let our government sacrifice in the name of protecting us? And how much privacy are we are willing to give up to feel safer? To say that we need to make an absolute choice between our freedoms and our security is a false argument because it’s impossible to be 100% safe from an enemy that is willing to give up their own lives to take ours. 

This is an extremely important debate given the revelations about the opaque nature with which our government and the NSA have been operating and abusing their powers. They have gone beyond our borders, bypassed our laws and their severely overextended their remit. The NSA no longer felt the need to keep the President of the United States of America informed about some of their spying programs. 

We urgently need a new framework for the NSA, one that has sufficient and effective oversight by the executive, legislative and the judicial branches of government. The NSA has shown they cannot be trusted, operating with complete impunity, little transparency and zero accountability. Beyond the argument to protect privacy, there are a number of other reasons why the current NSA spying program needs to be curtailed and have some reasonable limits applied to it, before it is too late.

Let’s start with the simple fact that, while fear is an irrational thing, it does have a tangible effect in our daily lives and societies. Take the stock market, for example, it goes up and down based on a number of rational factors, but is also directly driven by irrational sentiment – our level of confidence or lack thereof, in the economy, personal job prospects and optimism or pessimism about our future. So too with terrorism, there are irrational and rational elements that we need to consider when determining the level of security that is reasonable to protect against attacks.

First, security experts around the world agree that the majority of airport security procedures are completely ineffective in preventing an act of terror; yet the TSA’s budget in 2014 was over $7 Billion (source: Wikipedia). There have been numerous studies and reports published on how ineffective the TSA and their methods are (Source: “Airport Security Is Making Americans Less Safe” and “Report Says T.S.A. Screening Is Not Objective” and “TSA Chief Out After Agents Fail 95 Percent of Airport Breach Tests”.)  

If you examine these facts rationally, you could build a strong argument for getting rid of most of these airport security measures, or at the very least cut down on the number of inconveniences travelers face. Yet, the reason for all this security is simple and has little to do with making us more secure on an aircraft. It is psychological and driven by the fact that air travel is vital for global commerce and economic growth.

Imagine if people became too scared to fly - the world and business would come to a grinding halt. So even though the amount of money spent on airport security is disproportionate to the actual security it provides, the visibility and inconvenience makes people feel safer, which in turn helps them go about their daily lives. For this reason, there are sometimes important and valid reasons to make a show of security. There is a tangible economic benefit involved and this is why airports and not train stations, bus depots or sea ports are protected in the same manner. This is also the reason we always see a beefed up security presence on the streets in the aftermath of a terror attack anywhere in the world.

The second thing to weigh in this debate is that we have a disproportionate emotional response to terrorism as compared to every other event that ends with loss of life. Consider our response to the Boston Marathon bombings against our response to the Texas refinery explosion that happened the same week. Three people died in Boston and fifteen in Texas. In Boston, a number of people were maimed; in Texas an entire town was leveled with hospitals, schools and homes all destroyed. 

Yet, we and the media fixated entirely on the events in Boston and the subsequent manhunt for two young men. Within a few weeks America had donated $61 Million to the OneFund for the Boston victims; while Texas has received little more than $1M of our kindness in that time. I am not arguing that one was less or more devastating than the other, simply pointing out how disproportionate, both our fixation and our tangible responses is to terrorism versus any other calamitous event. 

Ultimately it is much easier to unite against a common enemy that has a name and face, and get some sense of closure when our government hunts down and kills them.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Value of Privacy

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

There has been much furor and attention in the news regarding the NSA’s blatant overreach and invasion of privacy but the reality is that the manner in which the private sector has been invading our personal lives is far more intrusive and concerning. What’s more, nobody really knows how much is actually being collected, which companies are doing the collecting or the methods they are using. 

In this regard the internet remains the Wild West. In the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, “A digital Magna Carta is required if we are to stand any chance of halting the Internet’s steady infringement of our right to privacy.” What is scarier is that the information being collected, on each of us, is also being compiled and sold to third parties without our knowledge or consent. 

For many years we were assured that the information we shared via online searches, sites we visited and ads we clicked was being collected and stored in a non-personally identifiable manner. And that it was being collected with the intention of improving our online experiences and adding a greater degree of personalisation for marketing to us. It turns out that this is far from the truth. 

Today, there are numerous companies compiling dossiers on us; gleaned not only from our online behaviours and habits, but then supplemented with information from the real world. Frighteningly, these dossiers are not anonymous. They identify us by name and contain comprehensive profiles that include everything from political and religious affiliations to medical and criminal histories to shopping and surfing habits. These dossiers are being openly sold to everyone from prospective employers and research companies, to marketers and financial institutions. Watch 60 Minutes report: “The Data Brokers” 

The argument used by marketing companies, internet firms and these so called data brokers, to defend this gross invasion of privacy, is to say that anything we disclose on the internet (as well as data that exists in the public domain) should be considered fair game. They argue that people are fully aware of the information they are sharing online, doing so willingly, and free to read the terms and conditions on each website about how their data is being handled. In their estimation, consumers are willingly parting with all this personal information. 

They further contend that the internet is a marketing medium, so people need to accept that information gleaned off it can and will be used not only to personalize experiences, but also to better advertise and market to us. Based on this flimsy argument they also staunchly believe that there is no need for government regulation to prevent anyone willing to pay money to know more about us, than a spouse or parent ever would. 

Then there are those who argue that if we have nothing to hide, why should we be concerned?  They ask why we care if every term we search, product we buy, page we visit, prescription we fill and gift we send is tracked by companies or sold on to third parties. To me this is a totally false argument because an individual’s right to privacy has nothing to do with having something to hide. Everyone has a reasonable expectation to privacy in a democratic society. It is a fundamental right. 

Think about a really simple analogy in the real world. Imagine you walk out of your house to run some errands on a beautiful Saturday morning. You stop at Starbucks on the corner for a latte and doughnut. Next you cross the street to go over to the pharmacy to pick up the prescriptions your doctor called in. The pharmacist asks you to verify your home address. 

On your way home you decide to run a few more errands. First, you stop at another drugstore to talk to their pharmacist about recommending something for a nasty rash you have on your inner thigh (Note: you choose not to ask your regular pharmacist who knows your whole family by name, because you are feeling embarrassed and not because you have something to hide). Then it’s a stop at the local grocery store, where you use some email coupons on your phone. 

You then make a quick stop at the wine store to pick up a nice bottle of wine for yourself and a few bottles of bubbly for the party you are attending this weekend. You spend some time browsing at your favourite local boutique, on your way to the final stop at the dry cleaner. The clerk at the dry cleaner asks for your home phone number to look up your account. 

Arguably, you have been in what can be described as the 'public domain' while running all your errands. Much like if you had stayed home and transacted entirely on the internet. In both cases, you were required to divulge and share various bits of personal and private information, including your home address, phone number, medical history and credit card information in order to complete your transactions. 

Now imagine that you are running through the same schedule, except that from the moment you leave your home, you have a dozen random strangers physically following you around and secretly take down all the little bits of information you are legitimately required to and willing to divulge along the way. 

These strangers would be doing this without your prior consent or knowledge. These shadowy figures are simply leaning in closer as you give the pharmacist your insurance information and prescription list, or peering over your shoulder to look at your grocery cart, trying to determine if you are gluten intolerant. In fact, they are keeping track of everything you say, see and do. 

Now imagine that these strangers follow you around every day for months or even years collecting, storing and then combining this data with every other bit of information they can find from public records. They include your past employers, home addresses, credit history, political and charitable donations, etc. and then they put it all together to create a file on you that they can legally sell to any third party willing to pay for it.

These exact dossiers compiled by data brokers are now being used by many financial institutions to gauge your 'social' ranking and credit-worthiness, based on who your Facebook friends are. Such compilations are even being used by prospective employers to determine your character. This gross violation of trust is actually happening today, completely in the shadows and without our consent. 

I understand that technology has reshaped our lives in many ways and with these conveniences there is a reasonable and necessary loss of privacy. With this I don’t believe anyone has an issue. However, to say that if we are bothered by the extent to which we have lost control over our private information, and the solution is to simply stop using the internet or sharing personal information on it (which is impossible) – it is akin to saying we should not leave the house if we are worried about getting mugged. 

It is a totally nonsensical argument and an unrealistic expectation in a world that has become completely dependent on technology. The point is not to have zero, or even total, privacy, but that information gathering should not be done surreptitiously. It should be conducted in a way that clearly informs us, gives us the choice to participate or not, and allows us to limit the amount of information we are willing to share.

It is an absolute right to expect privacy and be aware of how our information is being used and by whom; especially when sharing information in a specific situation for a very specific purpose, e.g. at a pharmacy to get a prescription filled. It is not unreasonable to expect that the same pharmacy will never share this information or start to combine it with other habits, behaviours, etc. and then sell the information to a third party. 

Equally, it would be ludicrous to try to regulate the entire internet by creating even more complex and detailed privacy laws that cover every possible situation or transaction; not to mention trying to do this globally in some uniform way. 

The solution is to make the whole process completely transparent and allow people to make the choices regarding information they are willing to share. Make it simple and clear about how and for what purpose our information will be used on every site. 

For example, if you shop on Amazon. then the baseline should be that this site alone would have access to only the most basic information required (name, address, credit card) for someone to complete a transaction; and this information would never be shared or sold to a third party without our prior consent. Amazon should also allow us to delete personal browsing and shopping history, if I choose not to save it or be marketed to more accurately. 

Further, Amazon could build incentives for people who are willing to share more of their shopping history, or even more detailed information about themselves, their habits and behaviours; even around the rest of the web. 

The same should hold true for tracking companies; they too can create incentives for people willing to sign-up and give them permission to follow them across the web, on their mobile phones, etc. Finally, every company that sells and profits off individual data should also share that revenue with the individual; creating a sort of human-information exchange. 

However, the default on the web and every site should always be that people are opted-out and not the other way around, as it is today.