Monday, July 13, 2015

Facebook, Privacy, Surveillance Society

Wired magazine’s most recent issue featured a piece this month on the country’s biggest spy center that is currently under construction. The spy center, located in a valley in Utah, will be watching all sorts of communication including “complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter (Wired 04/ 2012).” The $2 billion facility is being built by the National Security Center, which, according to Wired, became the largest and most intrusive intelligence agency ever. And, it is not just governments, but also any average citizen with computer access will be under surveillance. A senior intelligence official says

“Everybody with communication is a target (Wired 04/ 2012).”

And, Wired, on the same issue, warns its readers: “Watch what you say”

Going back to the article, Social Networking in the Surveillance Society, the author suggests that as citizens are also subject to, what he calls, “economic surveillance.”  In a typical business model, corporations that own social networking sites, provide free access to users. Over time, as networking sites accumulate information on personal data and user behavior, data is eventually sold to advertising clients (Fuchs, 2010). In the same study, students say that better public information and discussion on privacy issues would improve their understanding of the surveillance society. Even though this sounds like a good idea, protest and consumer groups took similar actions in the past, but they rarely accomplished anything solid. Before the “news feed” function, users would only receive very general notifications from Facebook about their friends' updates. For instance, if friend X updated his “quotes” on his profile, Facebook would tell you to go to that friend's profile for details about the update.When “news feed” was launched, many users protested, as they perceived constant feed of detailed updates as a threat to privacy. A number of protest groups were created on Facebook at the time with titles such as “Facebook takes stalking a whole new level.” Well, over the following months, all those efforts only led to more invasive features such as the new “Timeline” or “Ticker,” which updates stories in real-time on the right side of the screen. My overall argument is that solely vocalizing the problem does not solve the problem. Protest groups and consumer groups need to take a more effective action, if they want to make a difference. They should partner with computer scientists or with people with related technical expertise. If they want to put up a good fight, they need to speak the same language as Apple, Facebook, Twitter or Amazon speak, and that is the language of computer science.

I agree with the articles that support the notion that people care about their privacy more than some might assume. However, it should not be measured by the number of people who read privacy agreements. One problem with privacy statements is that they are hard to understand! To me they could as well be in French, a language that scares me even from a distance. Several times I attempted to read such privacy terms, but the result was failure. The second problem is that, corporations make you feel entitled to “agree.” For example iTunes, if you do not agree, it will not give you access. You can't pick which statements of the term you would like to agree. It is an all-or-nothing deal.  So, why bother reading, if you have to agree in the end anyways?


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