Anu aunty’s of the internet age.

What’s the big deal with Facebook selling my ‘personal’ data?

I come from the land of Anu aunty’s. Anu aunty, referred to by Varun Agarwal in his book — How I braved Anu aunty and co-founded a million dollar company, represents your neighbor aunty and not-so-close relatives who think that they have a right over your personal information. They know everything from how much you earn to your potential fiancee’s, where you were last Sunday and who who will be meeting next Sunday. They precede Google and don’t even require internet to collect your data. And without the use of any algorithm, they know what you should do after high school (either engineering or medicine), tell you where you should work (in an IT company) find prospective partners for you and even recommened where you should buy a property. Beat that Facebook!

Looks like Zuckerberg took this challenge to his heart. What started as a platform for the students of Harvard University to keep in touch is today the largest social networking site in the world and is worth $350 billion. Wait! Largest social networking site sounds okay, but what about Facebook makes it worth so much? Take Google. A search engine built to help you find what you need, and yet worth $527 billion. What on earth do these seemingly harmless platforms, built to give you what you want have, that make them so valuable? You! They have you, and your data. A billion other people like you. This data is their single most important asset. Every single online footprint you leave (likes, comments, shares, posts, searches, clicks, etc.) says something about you. Over a short period of time, the resultant data set talks enough about what, where, how, when and why you do things. It has enough to know what kind of a person you are. And this is gold! Gold for companies who are competing with hundreds of others in trying to sell you their services or products. Nothing like a personalized advertisement right?

There has been an uproar in the recent past over the issue of companies like Facebook and Google selling this data to companies looking to market something to you. It has been thought of as an invasion of privacy. How can Facebook make money by selling my personal data? I don’t know if it is my cultural background, but I don’t really understand what the furor is about. Firstly, these companies are not really selling, or even revealing your data. They understand from their clients the user groups they are targeting. They then use the data they have to push ads to relevant user groups. If Nike wants to place an ad for their trainers, Facebook will start its ‘algorithm machine’ and identify people who satisfy a set of conditions defined by Nike— they are between 18–34, have liked pages of companies that make running accessories and have checked in or uploaded a picture at a running event. Once identified, the ads are shown on their news feed. So yup! There is somebody inside Facebook (a computer algorithm) that will go over your data. They want to, have to make money. What do you expect? Them to be a non profit and just help people connect with each other? And what is the data we are talking about? Likes, shares, comments, searches, etc., and not your bank details or SSNs. I am in no position to decide for the world, but this really seems okay to me.

When Eric Schmidt of Google said “If you are doing something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you should not be doing it in the first place”, I am pretty sure he did not mean that everything you do has to be public. If he did, then I would not completely agree with him. However, what I think he means is, there is this data set they collect based on your activities and use it to make money. Now, Google is not really harming you in any way by doing that. Google reads my mail and knows that I have a flight to San Fransisco, and reminds me to web check in 24hrs prior to departure. I personally would love this feature as against putting up a fit as to how the hell did Google know I have a flight!? C’mon. Your airline company knows you have a flight to San Fransisco. Your travel agency knows you have a flight to San Fransisco. The airport authorities know you have a flight to San Fransisco. I am sure there are others I am missing, who know you have a flight to San Fransisco, like your 1000 friends on Facebook by your check-in. So what is the big deal with Google using this data to show you some ads? This kind of data is what I think Eric is talking about. Harmless data. I am sure there can be a lot of harm done too by using this data, and now that is what the problem is. Not just the fact that Google uses the data to show you ads.

Moving to what happens behind the scenes and how it affects the users. We talked about how a computer algorithm is the brain behind this data crunching. It is a machine. Machines behave in a way told to them. What happens when these algorithms lead to experiences for the user that are not pleasing. Facebook’s ‘Year in review’ was loved by people. You could see a photo montage from the past year and was a great way to revisit memories. But what if those memories are the ones you don’t want to revisit? One father found out the hard way when most of his ‘Year in review’ photos were of his daughter. His daughter who had recently died. How do algorithms factor in such edge-cases or worst-case scenarios? This is similar to Target showing expecting mothers, ads of baby supplies based on your other purchases. What if it is a case of teen pregnancy who has not told her parents? How do we make sure machines don’t make such mistakes that are ethical, social, moral and not mathematical?

To conclude, I am personally okay with my data being used to show me something relevant. For me, the bigger issue is when it goes wrong. How do we instill values in machines and change their behavior? All this leads me to the ‘Trolley problem’. How can we teach a machine to take decisions on ethics when the human who invented it, is not able to?