Facebook says it cares about our privacy, but do we?

Equipping ourselves for the changing online world

Last month, the world was up in arms that Cambridge Analytica and Facebook had betrayed users’ trust by using their private data to potentially swing the 2016 US Presidential election in favour of Donald Trump and the 2016 Brexit Referendum in favour of Britain leaving the European Union.

Facebook’s users are angry, their public representatives are angry, and as Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 world apology tour shows, Facebook itself is feeling the backlash and is at least trying to appear as if it cares and wants to atone for its mistakes. The genuineness of Zuckerberg’s remorse, however, must always be taken with a bucketful of salt, as Mark has a habit of saying sorry and following up with nothing.

Users of Facebook have every right to be angry at the social networking giant and the marketing analytics firm that harvested their data to potentially influence the outcome of important democratic elections, however, simply pinning the entirety of the blame on Facebook and whoever else they might be working with, only addresses one-half of a very real problem; the other half is us — the users.

The Inescapability of a Digital Life

If you know or have a child that was born in 2007, there’s a high probability that that child now has access to a smart device (tablet, phone or both) and also has at least one, if not multiple, social media accounts. As was reported towards the end of last year, around half of children aged 11 and 12 have social media accounts, even though most countries require children to be a minimum of 13 to do so.

What’s even scarier is that a report released last month claimed that a quarter of children under the age of six, i.e. those born in 2012, also have access to or own a smartphone; though at this age most toddlers are simply making calls, sending messages and using their smartphones to play games.

Suffice to say, the children of the 21st century are being born digital and can operate an Android or an iPhone as easily as Roger Federer can operate a tennis racquet.

There are, of course, positives to this digital dexterity. For example, by the time young adults graduate from university, they are fully integrated digital natives that can very easily assume their place among the digital workers of today’s knowledge economy. Interview questions that inquire into candidates’ proficiencies in Word, Excel and a basic understanding of social media networks, are fast becoming utterly redundant. To ask a millennial — or ‘generation Z’ as the younger ones are called — if they’re ‘good with computers’ is to ask a fish if they’re good with water.

With the good, however, also comes the bad. As more information comes to light about how Google, Facebook, Amazon and many other digital networks use the information users put into them for profiling, tracking and other nefarious purposes, by the time these young-adults have graduated university, it’s very likely they will have also provided these companies with over a decade’s worth of deeply personal and potentially compromising data. The trade-off, it seems, to entering the knowledge economy as an expert navigator of digital tools is letting those digital tools expertly navigate you.

Convenience trumps Privacy

Nearly all technological advances have had positive effects on society, at least in computing, medicine, aviation and internet connectivity. The problem is not so much that the internet and social media are inherently evil, but rather that the majority of people using them have a very laissez-fair attitude towards their own data and privacy.

To a great extent, this attitude towards data and privacy makes sense. For those lucky enough to have been born or raised in the West in the latter half of the 20th century, life, on a local level, has been noticeably punctuated by the absence of war, coercion, authoritative governments and a steady rise in living standards and overall convenience of life. Violence, of course, still exists, as does sexism and racism and many other awful isms, however, on the whole, if you could choose to be born in this century or any of the ones that have come to pass, most people, regardless of colour, gender, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation would choose right now over back then.

All of this is wonderful and there is obviously a great deal more progress to be made, however, one of the downsides of having so much liberty, prosperity and convenience is that we very quickly forget just how bad things can get.

We’ve gotten to a point where Western society generally expects the best and is surprised when it gets anything less. This isn’t inherently a bad thing; it’s great to see the good in life and to live in a world that is in an overall decent enough state that most people can reasonably expect to live the rest of their lives in peace, without being murdered, or sent to gulags or gas chambers for something as trivial as having ‘bourgeoise’ thoughts or worshiping a different god.

Where it does let society down, however, is in people’s ability to assess risks, and so we go about revealing everything to anyone who will listen and forsake any shred of freedom or privacy for the simple convenience of being able to talk to a machine in our living room and command it to download the latest Childish Gambino album.

Beyond Facebook

In 2013, Edward Snowden showed the world that it wasn’t just Facebook and Google that were using people’s data to find out more about them; the government was also taking a large piece of people’s privacy pie.

Outrage ensued after these revelations came to light, in much the same way as outrage continues to ensue for the Cambridge Analytica revelations. Although, as all things that come to be eventually pass, for the most part, people have moved on from the 2013 government surveillance scandal and have continued to ‘check-in’, ‘like’, ‘stream’ and ‘double-tap’ their way to total public exposure.

Most people in the West have become used to ‘benevolent’ democratic governments. The type of government, that if people are not happy with, they can protest and strike and vote out of power those whom they deem to have done a terrible job. This — wonderfully — has become our status-quo. As such, people have forgotten that this democratic tit for tat is the exception, and not at all the historical rule. Sanguine with their level of security, people simply go about their lives giving away their deepest and darkest thoughts to a machine that is storing every bit of information about them that it can, and can very easily be turned against them if it’s stewardship were to fall into the wrong hands.

Everybody is talking about how ‘Nazis’ are making a comeback, from serious anti-Semitic sentiments rising up across Europe to tiki-torch carrying white supremacists in Charlottesville, USA, it seems there are small, and not so small, groups of haters who would be all too happy to welcome a technology that could assist them in identifying people of the Jewish faith or those with Jewish sympathies. A quick scroll through someone’s Facebook page today can very easily let someone know if they’ve attended a Bar Mitzva or celebrate a Jewish holiday.

This may seem alarmist and far-fetched but recall that the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany took the whole world entirely by surprise.

Or to take a more recent and tangible example, recall last year, when Facebook was used by Myanmar officials to spread a calculated and vicious hate-filled misinformation campaign against the Rohingya Muslims. Or if that’s too foreign and distant, think back to the outrage expressed by the LGBT community when it was announced that there was an AI that could predict sexuality simply based on photo analysis. Imagine that technology in a country taken over by an ultra-conservative religious extremist of either the Christian or Muslim faith? Far-fetched, yes, but Mike Pence is only a heartbeat away from the Oval Office and ISIS has a tendency to throw homosexuals off of buildings.

Born Digital

If today’s algorithms have the processing power to crunch our data and know us better than we could ever possibly know ourselves, and children as young as 11 are already sporting multiple social media accounts, it follows that a responsible society simply cannot leave children to learn the ways of the digital wild-west organically.

In order to ensure that the generation growing up cares more about data privacy than the generation that’s just been exposed, doesn’t it make sense to start formally engaging with kids on the topic of data privacy and digital security in the same way we currently do about issues of sexual health, birth control and sexual assault?

As fewer and fewer teenagers engage in sexual intercourse, and greater and greater numbers are sent off (as early as 13), to smartphone rehab, the answer clearly seems to be: YES.

Children, yes even those as young as 10, need to be explicitly taught the importance of privacy and the luxury anonymity can afford them. As the line between online and offline continues to blur and people end up leaving digital footprints that can be traced back to their prepubescent days, a thorough understanding of the risks involved in ‘going digital’ have to be made clear to them; just as the risks of underage sex, pregnancy and STIs are made clear to them today.

Does all this mean we should burden our 10-year olds with horrifying stories of ISIS, World War Two, the Rohingyas and Mike Pence? Of course not. Hopefully, secondary schooling is good enough to give children a decent grasp of history and current affairs. What it does mean, however, is that we should educate kids on how their information is collected online by search engines and social media networks and make sure they understand that what they share online can and will be used against them, for better or worse, by government or corporation.

For tips on how to protect your privacy online, you can read this ZDNET article by Zack Whittaker.

The views expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect the opinions of any of the companies for which I am employed to write.