Private eyes are watching you
Published: Sunday | February 19, 2012 2 Comments 1 2 > Paul Golding, Contributor
Information communications technology (ICT) has transformed our lives in significant ways. The following anecdote gives an illustration of the transformation.
As a teenager in the 1970s, only the wealthy had a landline. So if we wanted to make a call to the USA, we would go down to Cable & Wireless on a Sunday evening, and join the line of persons wishing to do the same. We would listen to the conversation of the person on the phone to gauge when we thought the conversation would finish. In those days, we mainly made collect calls to the USA, so there was always the possibility of being embarrassed if the intended recipient of the call declined.
Fast-forward to 2012, the use of cellular phones is ubiquitous, with telephone plans that give you ‘free’ minutes to the USA and other countries. In addition, there are other means of communication: email, Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging, among others. Popular media and research articles extol the virtues of the digital age and the use of digital technology, while downplaying one of the major paradoxes of ICT, the increasingly invasive progression of these technologies and the invasion of privacy.
One author defined privacy as custody of the facts of one’s life, from strings of digits to tastes and preferences. The revenue strategy of Google, Facebook, Twitter and others is to generate income based on advertising. What this means is that the data we share on these sites: demographic information – names, addresses, views on issues, pictures of yourself or others, geospatial location information imbedded in our smartphones – are all collected, mined and a profile created. This information is either sold or used for target advertising.
The New York Times explains the strategy: “Facebook makes money by selling advertising space to companies that want to reach us. Advertisers choose key words – like relationship status, activities, favourite books and employment – and then Facebook runs the advertisement for the targeted subset of its 845 million users.”
Price to pay
Facebook made US$3.2 billion in 2011, which was dwarfed by Google, which made US$36.5 billion. In essence, what this means is that all the ‘free’ services you get from Google – Gmail, Google+, Google Search, Google Docs, Google Maps – there is a price to pay. This data from these different sources are combined and mined to determine trends and patterns in your behaviour, and they also create new knowledge about you that you that you may not know yourself.
The technology gives the capacity to store vast amounts of data permanently and it reduces the amount of space to store it and the labour and time to categorise it. There is a recent case of an Austrian law student who requested from Facebook all the information the company kept about him on his profile. The student, who has been on Facebook since 2008, received a disc from the company with 1,222 pages of information. This included photos, messages (some of which he had deleted) and information on his physical location which he had not consented to give.
These social-network sites encourage users to give as much information as possible, as information is their stock in trade. In September 2011, Facebook introduced a new type of profile called Timeline: this service encourages users to tell their whole life story online, highlighting milestones like birth, graduation, wedding, using pictures and otherwise. All this behavioural information is stored and used.
In the USA, behavioural information is big business. According to Forrester Research, companies spend up to US$2 billion a year for this kind of data. An interesting company offering behavioural information online is Spokeo. It is a data aggregator that gathers info from several different data sources, including white-page listings and online sources, including Facebook and Twitter.
According to its website, its mission is to help people find and connect with others more easily than ever. It offers services such as reverse phone look-up, which functions like a caller ID which allows you identify the name of the owner of a phone number.
Spokeo ‘user name search’ finds public profiles with similar user names on social networks, blogs, photo albums, dating sites, e-commerce stores, and other public web services. It offers a scary service in which it invites women to submit their boyfriends’ email address for an analysis of their online photographs and activities to determine if he is cheating on you. Seriously!
Spokeo also offers services to companies, recruiters, and human-resource professionals who need to screen persons based on their online profile. In fact, the obscure term ‘weblining’ is used to describe the practice of denying persons opportunities based on their online profile. One New York Times article indicated that 70 per cent of recruiters and HOUR professionals in the USA reject candidates based on their online profile.
Another aspect of ICT which gives rise to privacy concerns is global-positioning systems (GPS) and the use of location-based social networks. GPS is a worldwide satellite+navigation system that provides location and time information. These systems now come embedded in smartphones. There are location-based social networks that use GPS features to locate you and let you broadcast your location and other content from your smartphone. Foursquare and Whrrl are two of the premier websites offering this service; however, Facebook has Places and Google has Latitude.
Imagine your significant other requesting that you broadcast your location while you are out with ‘the boys’ or ‘the girls’. Location-based social networks provide additional tracking and monitoring information to add to your behavioural profile. In rich countries, and increasingly in developing countries, CCTV is widely used to monitor people’s behaviour. The surveillance society which George Orwell imagined is now here; others may even argue that this is the beginning of the fulfilment of Revelation 13.
What the foregoing indicates is that there is very little online privacy (or privacy in general) and that social-networking sites encourage you to give them content to sell to advertisers. With the speed of technology innovation, the globalisation of data flows and the growth of cloud computing, it becomes increasingly difficult to regulate online privacy.
However, for there to be trust in online services, new rules are required to put people in control of their personal data. Consequently, the European Union is proposing strengthening what it calls “the right to be forgotten”, so that if you no longer want your personal data to be processed, and there is no legitimate reason for an organisation to keep such, it must be removed from the company’s database.
The US is a little more reticent about changing online privacy laws; in fact, there is no US law that specifies the use and control of online data. This may be based on the fact that most of these social-networking sites are US based. In the meantime, users need to be aware of how their data are being used and to act accordingly.
Dr Paul Golding is associate professor, and dean of the College of Business and Management, University of Technology, Jamaica. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.