Unethical Facebook and the Tech Cos Who Spy on Us
The dirty little secret about Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc. and other tech companies is that their business model is unethical — it is a combination of espionage and propaganda.
This week the “data misuse” scandal, involving allegations that a third party obtained 50 million Facebook users to influence the 2016 election, underscores this description and reveals the extent of the problem. Facebook said it did not know about or gave permission to do this.
But the bigger story is that Facebook and others should be held accountable for how they treat our data, never mind rogue third parties.
Interestingly, the centre of this week’s scandal is a Canadian whistleblower, Christopher Wylie from B.C., who described how data was used by Cambridge Analytica, to create a psychological tool for Steve Bannon and the Trump campaign to “explore mental vulnerabilities of people” and to take “fake news to the next level.”
“It was a grossly unethical experiment because you are playing with an entire country, the psychology of an entire country, without their consent or awareness.”
But the phrase “consent and awareness” is key to understanding the bigger story here. For years, Facebook, Google and others have collected data from users by spying to determine their opinions, movements, friends, biases, and personality traits and then selling this info to advertisers, parties or others.
For instance, Facebook knows, among its 2 billion users, who has depression, pimples or is racist, supremacist, or angry. This, plus analytics, is valuable to intermediaries and “advertisers” who target users to sell medicines, ideologies, assault rifles or demagogues.
The current revelations have shaken up the industry and stock market, forcing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg into making public apologies and pledges to protect private data.
But his business model does not protect private data and sells it for enormous profits. The excuse, however, is that users get free services in return for signing away permission for them to collect and sell their data.
Such blanket permission should not be allowed because everyone’s data is for sale, and passes through many hands, ending up with Russians and other unscrupulous parties.
Frankly, blanket permission is a joke, and buried in lengthy, incomprehensible Terms of Service contracts that must be clicked by users before getting Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other services.
Nobody reads them.
The danger of their business model was set out eloquently in a 2013 book by computer scientist Jaron Lanier called “Who Owns the Future?”. He said concentration of power would grow to unacceptable proportions and recommended that tech companies must inform users about who is using their data and then make micro-payments to them. He described Facebook and the others as “spy agencies” and would lead to Big Brother behaviour and control over the economy, society and democracy.
The solutions are not difficult: Ideally, the model should be scrapped and tech companies should keep their paws off everyone’s data and simply charge users for their search and social media usage.
But until that happens, users – not Facebook or other technology companies – will remain the victims of “data misuse” and exploitation without compensation.
Some governments in Europe have put in place legislation to prevent data collection and resale without permission of users. This is long overdue and the U.S. and Canada, or their courts, must act to stop abuses immediately.
Still others in the U.S. believe the tech companies may have already abrogated regulations.
This week, a U.S. Federal Trade Commission official said: “Consumers need stronger protections such as comprehensive data security and privacy laws, transparency and accountability for data brokers, and rights to and control over their data.”