In 1994 Wired magazine ran a short story entitled “Hack the spew” . This was back when Wired was actually cutting edge and not the insufferable Silicon Valley stroke job it became after Conde Naste acquired it. In it our antihero “Stark” finds himself inexplicably recruited as a kind of data scout, looking for viable consumer trends emerging from the fully immersive, all encompassing data field known as “The Spew”.
“When a schmo buys something on the I-way it goes into his Profile, and if it happens to be something that he recently saw advertised there, we call that interesting, and when he uses the I-way to phone his friends and family, we Profile Auditors can navigate his social web out to a gazillion fractal iterations, the friends of his friends of his friends of his friends, what they buy and what they watch and if there’s a correlation.”
The Spew of course, was the near future analogy of where the internet was headed, and when I went looking to link to it for this post, the piece turned out to be written by none other than Neal Stephenson. That means I read “Hack The Spew” and it made an impression on me before I even knew who Stephenson was or perhaps was on his way to becoming. Few would argue that Stephenson has a gift for seeing the general ambience of our oncoming future. Cryptonomicon uncannily anticipated the impetus toward crypto-currencies; the current systemic dysfunction of national sovereignty worldwide was foretold in Snow Crash; so it follows that all this will likely culminate in something that resembles The Diamond Age.
Today, “The Spew” is not equivalent to the Internet itself, but it is more accurately analogous to say the social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, especially when combined with the twin monopolies of Google and Amazon, collectively are: The Spew.
It is like a global garbage pile of digital flotsam and jetsam, over which peasants scurry around and scour, looking for some morsel here, a crumb there, which can be monetized. If a trend or a trait is detected, even better. Those can be aggregated, syndicated, federated, even rehypothecated and at scale that can yield staggering financial payoffs and perhaps, even steer the course the history.
At least that’s the narrative since the Cambridge Analytica scandal blew up in Facebook’s …face. After a long string of successive privacy fails (a.k.a a pattern of abuse?) this time feels different, as if the chickens are finally coming home to roost for Facebook.
Cambridge Analytica is not unique
Ever heard of Kareem Serageldin? Probably not.
To date, he is the only banker to have been sent to prison in connection with the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis for his role in issuing fraudulent mortgage-backed securities (at least outside of Iceland). To be sure, he was a fall guy, a token sacrifice to demonstrate contrition for what was a systemic, institutionalized effort to inflate a bubble whose implosion nearly crashed the entire global financial system.
In this case while Facebook attempted to throw water on this crisis by ceremonially banishing Cambridge Analytica from its system, the longstanding pattern of abuse remains, and is perhaps now, finally, awareness of that is reaching critical mass with the public:
- Facebook scraped your call data from Android phones for years (iPhone’s are also vulnerable to privacy intrusions, see below).
- Facebook enables features such as “racial profiling” to advertisers
- Election rigging? Facebook approached major Australian political parties to micro target voters in 2016 election (the Liberals turned them down, Labour took them up)
- And while there were key differences in the way data was used, (not to mention more informed consent) the 2012 Obama re-election campaign used the same data mining features and accessed the same data as the Cambridge Analytica app
- In fact it may be veritably baked into their ecosystem to such a degree that it is almost impossible to develop and create an app on Facebook that doesn’t harvest your data
Mark Zuckerberg has issued yet another “Mea Culpa” on CNN, and Facebook will take out full page ads in newspapers to apologize to the public. Yet, by now, “Groveling Zuckerberg apologies” are just part of the Facebook playbook, as Liz Gannes observed back in 2011, after Facebook had just settled with the US Federal Trade Commission over still more privacy violations:
“At this point, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s pattern on privacy is clear. Launch new stuff that pushes the boundaries of what people consider comfortable. Apologize and assure users that they control their information, but rarely pull back entirely, and usually reintroduce similar features at a later date when people seem more ready for it.”
It becomes clear, as Futurist (and easyDNS member) Jesse Hirsh made this point on Steve Pakin’s “The Agenda” over the weekend: “Facebook ships with all privacy enhanced settings disabled” – further, my personal findings are that they use obfuscation to make it harder to disable data sharing settings. You have to jump through hoops to do it.
Should you #deleteFacebook?
WhatsApp founder Brian Acton, who became a billionaire when Facebook bought his company hasn’t let that dissuade him from telling the world what he thinks of all this:
Should you? Should easyDNS? Here’s my take on it:
If you are a business: keep your page but don’t be reliant on it
There is a difference between a business who uses Facebook as an antennae to provide additional ways to stay in touch with customers and those whose business model is completely dependent on Facebook. We started our Facebook page when we were pulled into the Wikileaks Crisis as a way to stay in touch with our customers while that entire fiasco played out. We maintain it today for the same reason, and people do frequently contact us through that page looking for support.
But some businesses are completely reliant on Facebook to survive. I subscribe to James Schramko’s Superfast Business Podcast. A recent episode had the founder of Dogtington Post on it, a site I frequented myself in my early days of being a dog owner (our family Husky).
You have to credit the guy with dominating his niche but I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to his business if something substantial changed at Facebook, or if some of his readers would feel “used” if they understood some of the myriad tactics some of these sites routinely use, via Facebook, to drive their own affiliate revenues.
It brings to mind 2 things:
- My late friend and one of the original easyDNS customers Atul Chitnis who was among the first to observe “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”
- My own maxim, which I introduced in the Guerrilla Capitalism Overview that there are two kinds of companies, those that feed on customer ignorance compared to those who prosper via customer savvy . I think it is obvious to all, at least now, that Facebook needs customer ignorance to survive.
(Or as Zuck eloquently observed it back in his dormroom days)
YMMV on your personal pages
I read a long time ago “don’t put anything on the internet that you wouldn’t want to read in the newspapers the next day”, and that has served me well as a guide over the years.
My basic assumption is that everything I post to Facebook, including “private” messages are wide open, being harvested, data mined, aggregated, used to target and retarget ads to me, build a profile and otherwise compile a comprehensive dossier, even stuff I’ve “deleted”. (If you’ve ever watched “Terms and Conditions May Apply” you’ll know that Facebook actually keeps the stuff you “delete”).
So I never say anything on Facebook or put anything on there that is remotely confidential or proprietary. It’s strictly a water cooler. I like it because it enabled me to reconnect with various groups of my friends and peers over the years, from the kids I grew up and went to high school with in Galt, Ontario to the misfits from the London underground music scene in college, to the tech entrepreneurs from the mid-90’s on.
Would I use it to send anything to anybody that I found myself hoping that it’s never going to leak or be used against me? Uh, no. That would be terribly naive.
So to that end, I’ll probably keep my personal Facebook page, even though I sometimes catch myself spending too much time arguing stupid pointless crap (like politics) with people I’d otherwise never associate with. But that’s a self-discipline issue, not a data soveriengty issue (although it is now also common knowledge that Facebook deliberately codes the platform itself to be as addictive as possible)
All that said…
At least #deleteFacebook from your mobile devices
Facebook harvests your contact lists from your mobile devices (don’t believe me, go here)
There are people in that list that I do not know. There are phone numbers from people who work for my competitors in there. My daughter’s (age 11) cell phone number is in there.
You can “delete” all this here: (but as you know Facebook never actually deletes anything).
Then when you go to “delete” all your contacts you get a message
“We won’t be able to tell you when your friends start using Messenger if you delete all your uploaded contact info.”
They say that like it’s a bad thing. But there is also this curious sentence:
“If you have Continuous Uploading turned on in the Messenger app, your contact info will be uploaded again the next time the app syncs with Facebook servers.”
I had deleted the Facebook mobile app from my phone a long time ago. I kept messenger installed because sometimes customers would contact easyDNS or Zoneedit via our Facebook pages for support.
It turned out I had already disabled continuous uploading but I was surprised to find that the messenger app had defaulted permission to access my phone’s microphone.
After this exercise I simply deleted the Messenger app from my phone as well.
Personal Data Sovereignty is an idea whose time has come
I think it would be safe to assume, that barring some widespread public pushback (such as the one happening right now), this is The New Normal.
People who may have been complacently oblivious to the fact that their social network was pimping them as mere data points are realizing that they don’t like it as they have their faces rubbed in one data breach and privacy violation after another.
Given the outrages of Equifax, Facebook et al, we may have arrived at the crossroads and we may only get this choice once.
Do we push back and say “NO”, I own my own data, I control who gets it and what happens with it. ?
Or, do we calm down after a few days, or weeks and then it’s business as usual. Next year Zuck will apologize for some other new breach of trust ahead of his 2020 presidential bid, while us “shmoes” go ahead and vote for him.