Internet Health, Privacy and the Big Technology Companies

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Wednesday 21st March 2018

I can’t remember the first time I used the internet, but it would have been at some point in 1998 or 1999 on dial-up. In those early days in my early teens, almost everyone I conversed with online used an alias, be they a friend from school or a stranger on Napster or LimeWire. It was seen as entirely normal to mask your identity online and to hide behind an alias for better or for worse. I didn’t publicly share my age, my location, my gender or any of my other personal attributes, because the early days of the internet were marked by distrust. It was a different way of thinking back then. So much has changed over the course of the last fifteen to twenty years.

I used my masked identities on forums and for file sharing purposes in my late teens and early twenties. It just seemed like a sensible precaution to take in those early days. In fact, I used several different aliases online right up until Facebook arrived on the scene in the UK in the spring of 2006. I wasn’t alone in this either, using an alias was common practice.

The erosion of privacy and the rise of big tech

At first you needed a university email address to sign up for a Facebook account and, perhaps as a result of having used a verified email address connected to their real identity to register with the network, people began to use their real names rather than an alias. As a small, verified community, Facebook felt like a safe place to be. I didn’t feel the need to mask my identity on there in the same way that I did elsewhere on the internet. Looking back, I don’t know if the slow roll-out was a calculated move by Facebook to make their product and eventual marketplace seem exclusive and thus an attractive place to be, or a practical decision so that their servers weren’t swamped by sign-ups. Either way, it changed the face of the internet and paved the way for individuals to begin to use their real names rather than aliases in their online activities.

I registered for a Facebook account in 2006 and in those early days it was fun. Facebook was an easy way to arrange a night out when my friends and I were all still at university, and the feed was chronological and free of advertising. I used Facebook to chat to friends, but I also used it for music to follow the pages of bands I liked.

I was only nineteen when I first signed up for Facebook, and I didn’t initially see where the platform was heading. Like everyone else, I gladly performed my identity, voluntarily submitting my personal details to their database to flesh out my profile. I behaved much the same as I had on MySpace which came before it, only on Facebook I also offered up my full real name, my date of birth, and details of my education. I gave it to them freely, without thinking. I shared my likes and dislikes, I shared all of my photos, and I shared the minutiae of my everyday life in ‘status updates’. It’s painful to reflect on this, but these were the days before facial recognition software became mainstream, and before Facebook was a fully fledged advertising platform. I was naive, yes, but I was also young and it was a different era. The scale of the platform Facebook was building was in uncharted waters for a technology company.

Over the years, Facebook changed and no longer resembled the cosy common room it had once seemed to be. Instead, it was beginning to resemble a noisy, aggressive marketplace. As I became more concerned about privacy, I gradually removed my details from the service including my unique last name, my date of birth, my list of ‘likes’ and the years of status updates and photos I had shared. In March 2012, two months after Facebook introduced their first adverts to the front page and there was no denying what their intentions for the platform were, I deleted my account.

The reason I have explored my experience with Facebook in this post is that I find Facebook’s success story fascinating and I am sure that my experience is by no means unique. I am amazed and horrified in equal measure that the people behind Facebook have managed to populate such a detailed and extensive database. Judging by some of Mark Zuckerberg’s private IMs which were leaked a few years ago, he is too.

The team behind Facebook have developed a product and service which people have sunk so much of their time and energy into that it has become impervious to controversy. No matter the size of the waves, the Facebook boat gently bobs along, unblemished by the frequent and sometimes violent storms it weathers. Its users are addicts, constantly refreshing its pages in search of highly satisfying variable rewards, and both businesses and political parties depend on it.

Facebook became the behemoth it is today slowly, by stealth, and I sometimes wonder if it would be possible for a new company to rise in this day and age in the same way that Facebook and Google did in the early 2000s. The hopeful part of me thinks not, that as a society we have learned not to trust technology companies in the way we once did, but the cynical part of me thinks that if the right conditions came along, that it could and would happen all over again. It is human nature to want to be seen, to be heard, to be noticed. As such, I think that platforms that allow us to display and curate our identities so freely will remain popular as they enable us to make connections, to do business, and to feel less lonely in our modern digital world.

Cambridge Analytica and the power of the big technology companies

What makes the large technology companies so powerful, useful for advertisers, and in need of regulation is that they have a global reach and understanding of our lives which is both broad and deep. Prior to the rise of Facebook, Google and the rest (Apple, Amazon, Twitter etc), no one company had access to technology which could profile customers to the extent which is possible today. We had Yahoo and AOL but their empires were different. We didn’t use one single login to access our calendars and address books, to send messages to our friends and family, to back up our internet browsing history, applications, and every single click, tap, swipe and poke of our electronic devices. The technology we used was different, too. Even as recently as 2004 our computers were quite basic and didn’t have GPS built in or advanced voice and facial recognition capabilities, and nor did they have cameras that could be turned on and off remotely; we had to plug our 3MP external web cam in manually and hope for the best over dial-up.

I love technology and find the speed of innovation fascinating, but I am worried by the direction in which we are currently heading. I am disconcerted by the uniquity of home assistant devices such as the Amazon Alexa and by the ‘internet of things’; fridges that know what and when you eat, thermostats that know when you’re home, connected microphones and home assistance devices that passively record your every conversation. On their own these innovations and products are remarkable, helpful, a step forward but, and it is a big but, these devices are connected to databases owned by companies who have questionable ethics and are concerned above all with their own profits. I don’t think it is helpful or sensible from a security perspective to let these big technology companies have access to such detailed data sets. If the recent Cambridge Analytica furore has shown us anything, it is that big tech cannot be trusted to have our best interests at heart.

My horror at how Facebook data was used to effect recent political campaigns set aside, I am not surprised by the scale of data accessed via the Facebook API. The only thing that surprises me is that the media and government is up in arms about it now. The faux fury is risible. The British government did nothing about the introduction of Facebook’s Graph API back in 2010 when the changes to the API that CA took advantage of first came into effect. Facebook is based in the USA, but the privacy implications of the API should have triggered an international response back then, so that we wouldn’t be in this mess now. It’s important to remember that CA’s data mining activities and detailed profiling were not the result of hacking or a system data leak. The ability to see a web of connections between people, places and ideas was built into Facebook’s API from 2010 and offered to developers for five years. CA simply took advantage of the API.

That Facebook owns a huge database filled with intimate data concerning people’s lives, likes and dislikes is not news. That Facebook allows advertisers directly or developers via their API to access this database for commercial purposes is also not news. As far as I am concerned, it was only a matter of time before somebody got their hands on the data and did something interesting or controversial with it. Ethics aside, I would argue that what CA has done is potentially very interesting from an academic perspective. I would love to see the connections they have drawn between different interests, backgrounds and political views, and how they utilised that information to create the visual materials that were used to sway public opinion in the campaigns preceding the US Presidential Election and the UK’s EU Referendum. To me it is a fascinating mix of data, behavioural psychology and visual methods. Horrifying and unethical? yes, but also interesting. I just wish the research had been put to better use to serve society rather than enable political gains for those with the deepest pockets.

I also think that there needs to be some limit on the ability of these large technology companies to decimate any competition they face within the marketplace. It’s not healthy for a state to revert to single party politics, and I find it incredibly frustrating that promising start-ups can be bought up or have their intellectual property copied without financial or legal repercussions (see Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram, and the similarities between Snapchat and Instagram ‘stories’).

Facebook and Google were pioneers. They started out as small collegiate enterprises with fresh faced CEOs and have morphed with the times into huge companies with a global reach far beyond anything we have seen before. To many people, the face of the internet is Facebook or Google, and yet these two entities are commercial ventures concerned first and foremost with their own profits, not ethics. It makes me laugh to think that anyone ever expected things to be any different, myself included.

If anything good comes out of this whole furore, it needs to be a tighter regulation of the way technology companies are allowed to operate, but I also recognise that as wishful thinking. The cynic in me knows that nothing will change and the media shit storm will blow over as soon as the next big story unfolds.

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