Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “privacy”

Is life without Facebook even possible?

There have been lots of “social media” sites on the web, but Facebook has undoubtedly been the most successful. Some years ago Yahoo made my account inaccessible for 6 months. They hosted my web pages (because they had taken over Geocities), they stopped me managing my mailing lists because they had taken over a mailing list host, and so  to be contactable on the web I registered for MySpace, but MySpace was clunky, its pages were cluttered and it was difficult to navigate. Then I found Facebook, which was clean, simple and easy — but it was only for current students at tertiary institutions. So when Facebook opened for everyone I joined.

Soon afterwards Yahoo! let me back in, but I still found Facebook useful, because Yahoo closed down most of the services I found most useful, including Geocities, MyBlogLog and WebRing. The only useful service they still provide is their mailing-list host, YahooGroups, and they’ve tried pretty hard to make even that less attractive and more user hostile.

Facebook, however, has succeeded in making itself almost indispensable, as this article shows I tried leaving Facebook. I couldn’t – The Verge:

Facebook had replaced much of the emotional labor of social networking that consumed previous generations. We have forgotten (or perhaps never noticed) how many hours our parents spent keeping their address books up to date, knocking on doors to make sure everyone in the neighborhood was invited to the weekend BBQ, doing the rounds of phone calls with relatives, clipping out interesting newspaper articles and mailing them to a friend, putting together the cards for Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, and more. We don’t think about what it’s like to carefully file business cards alphabetically in a Rolodex. People spent a lot of time on these sorts of things, once, because the less of that work you did, the less of a social network you had.

And, as the article also points out, everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook.

Facebook took over from MySpace because they did what MySpace was doing, but they did it better, making it less clunky and cluttered (they’ve cluttered it up now, but after eliminating rivals they don’t need to make it better).

Someone recently invited me to an alternative called MeWe, but they kept sending me e-mail  saying “Please read this message in an HTML capable reader”. I replied to the first couple saying “Please send me this message in plain text format”, but they didn’t, and I got tired of those identical messages, so just filtered them off to the spam bin. If they deliberately choose to make their messages unreadable, then the rest of what they are doing isn’t worth bothering about.

For a while Google had a better alternative to Facebook. It was called Orkut. It retained the simplicity of the early Facebook when Facebook began to get clunky, but it somehow only caught on in South America and South-East Asia, and Google dropped it.

So even though I sometimes find Facebook frustrating, especially when they come up with stupid ideas that make it more difficult to use, I haven’t tried to leave it, because in what it does, even when it tries to place obstacles in the way of doing what it does, it’s the only game in town.

One of the problems with Facebook is that it tries to make itself the only game in town even for the things that it doesn’t do, or doesn’t do well. One of the most egregious examples of that was when they changed everyone’s e-mail addresses in their profile to a Facebook one, and didn’t tell users that they had done so, and also didn’t tell them how to find mail that was sent to the address that they provided. So they tried to force all their users into using an e-mail service without telling them how it worked or even that it was there.

Many people are wary of Facebook because they are concerned about “privacy”. The people at Facebook are aware of these concerns, and they keep nagging me about them. My concern is the opposite — there’s too much privacy. If I want to keep something private, I don’t put it on Facebook. But Facebook doesn’t want that. Facebook wants me to use Facebook for everything. They want Facebook to be the whole Web, and even the whole Internet (as the linked article above shows).

Facebook keeps asking me “Who can read this?” and when I click on it, it tells me that anybody can read this. I’m more interested in knowing who can’t read this. I post links on Facebook thinking that some friends may be interested, but very often Facebook doesn’t show it to those people, but rather shows it to other people who find it boring or irrelevant, who then sometimes make silly or incomprehensible comments on them.

So I sometimes think of leaving Facebook, but I don’t. Why? Because, again as the linked article points out, I would lose contact with friends and relatives that I’ve found through Facebook. The contact is intermittent, scratchy and broken, like an old shortwave radio in a thunderstorm. But at least is there, and if I left Facebook I would lose it.

A couple of days ago we had lunch with Jim Corrigall, an old friend I had last seen more than 40 years ago. He told me by e-mail that he was going to be on Joburg last weekend, and we arranged to meet by phone, but it was through Facebook that we found each other, and without Facebook I would have have had no idea how to get in touch with him.

Jim Corrigall with Steve & Val Hayes, 28 April 2018

Most of my “friends” on Facebook are people like that — old friends who live far away, and in the past, if I stayed in touch with them at all, I might have sent a Christmas card, or a duplicated newsletter once or twice a year. In the days before duplicating, people would send “round robin” letters — write to one member of the family, and ask them to pass the letter on to another member of the family, and so on. Facebook has replaced those functions with something more immediate.

Facebook makes it possible, but Facebook also tries very hard to make it extremely difficult because of the obsession with “privacy”. You might write something in a round robin letter that you think will interest Aunt Joan, but Cousin Pete has fallen out with Aunt Joan and sends it to Uncle Bob instead. And Facebook often behaves like that.

Thirty years ago people use to talk about the “information superhighway”. Facebook built one, but then puts concrete blocks across all but one lane, so you have to negotiate an obstacle course.

Facebook’s “privacy” precautions are just that: obstacles to communication. If you are concerned about privacy and information leaks, then you won’t solve them by leaving Facebook. Disconnect your phone line. Get rid of all your mobile phones. Disconnect from the Internet, and build a high wall so that nosy neighbours can’t see what you are doing. Don’t go out of doors, lest a passing satellite spot you.

You used to be able to go to websites like Zoominfo, where you could find an amazing amount of information about you trawled from the Web.  At one time they used to let you edit it, and identify which applied to you and which didn’t. Now they don’t, so there’s no way of checking for accuracy, but they still sell it. You don’t need to subscribe to it or have ever logged into the site. So worrying about privacy leaks from Facebook is a bit like children playing at damming a stream when a flash flood is on its way.

And everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook.

In defence of Facebook

I’ve often been critical of Facebook in the past, and since the recent Cambridge Analytica affair many people have been deleting their Facebook accounts and challenging others to do so.

Some speak of Facebook addiction, and suggest that failure to delete your Facebook account may be a sign of addiction. But that makes about as much sense as saying that if you don’t get rid of all your telephones, you must have a telephone addiction.

For all its faults, Facebook has its uses and I use it, like a telephone and other media of communication, to communicate with people that I want to communicate with. Sometimes one has to devise workarounds for the obstacles that Facebook puts in the way of communication, often in the name of utterly bogus “privacy” concerns, but in spite of this, I think the advantages of using Facebook outweigh the disadvantages.  As one of the critics acknowledges Facebook: is it time we all deleted our accounts?:

In many ways, being able to distance yourself from Facebook these days is a privilege. As Safiya Noble, an assistant professor of information studies at the University of Southern California and the author of Algorithms of Oppression, notes: “For many people, Facebook is an important gateway to the internet. In fact, it is the only version of the internet that some know, and it plays a central role in communicating, creating community and participating in society online.”

Even if you’ve got multiple ways to communicate and participate in society online, there is not really a good replacement for Facebook. There’s no one portal that reminds you of your friends’ birthdays, connects you to relatives across the world and stores photos from 10 years ago. Deleting Facebook inevitably means missing out on certain things and having to make more of an effort to connect with people in other ways.

Deleting your Facebook account is like locking the garage after the car has been stolen. You data is already out there, and deleting your Facebook account won’t recall it.

I mentioned Facebook’s totally bogus concern for privacy. For example, it keeps warning me about “Who can see this post?” when I make posts public. But it does not warn me when I don’t make them public. I posted something recently for friends only, and Facebook failed to warn me that the next five posts were also marked for friends only.

If there is something I don’t want people to see, I don’t put it on Facebook. If I put it on Facebook, I think it’s OK for people to see it. If I make it “friends only” it’s not because I don’t want people to see it, but because I think people might find it boring. I’ve no doubt that many people out there do find stuff I post boring, and one of my biggest gripes with Facebook is that its algorithm seems to show people things that will bore them, and not show them things that will interest them. For example “Top Stories”, which has recently become the default, is what Facebook thinks are the top stories, not what I think are the top stories.

But the other day I saw a very ominous invitation from Facebook with no privacy warning. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something to the effect of “Tell people something about yourself that they don’t know?” According to my bullshit detectors, that has BIG DATA written all over it, rather than the “Who can see this?” nonsense.

Most third-party apps, quizzes and games, especially the ones that say stupid stuff like “Which of your friends will spring you from jail?” serve no other purpose than to get access to your data and that of your Facebook friends. They do warn you that the app or quiz or whatever will give access to your friends list, but true addicts won’t care about that.

 

 

Does Facebook’s targeted advertising work?

We are told that Facebook uses our profile information to show us ads that are most likely to be interesting to us. How Facebook Ads Work – Social Ads Tool:

You are what you Like

Facebook Ads are targeted according to your Facebook Profile information: Your age, location, education, relationship status, interests like favorite movies, music and much more are available to advertisers that can access to aggregate data and reach the right audience for their ads.

Depending on their goals and the product that they are advertising, advertisers can set a targeting filter to select which group of people will see their ad. This makes it possible to focus on or target the people most likely to be interested in the product, amongst the 500 million worldwide Facebook users.

Having read that in several places, I expected that the ads that I saw on Facebook might, just possibly, be suited to the kind of demographic group I’m in. But this is what showed up…

Scuba diving, at my age? Living inland?

Shy women? I’m married.

Little black bottle coloured green? What’s to like?

Looking for a partner? If I were single or divorced and 25 years younger, I might be, but given who I am, this is way off target.

The BBC recently decided to see how effective this was: BBC Finds Badly Targeted Facebook Ads Don’t Work. No Kidding. | TechCrunch:

the BBC tested out Facebook advertising by running a campaign for the Facebook page of a fictitious small business called VirtualBagel. The investigation was headlined “Facebook ‘likes’ and adverts’ value doubted”. During the week over 3,000 people Liked the ads even though the company doesn’t exist and simply shows you a picture of a bagel. The ‘investigation’ is partly a reminder that Facebook still has issues with fake profiles and Astroturfing, but is also a simple re-stating of the fact that you get what you pay for and if you put up a dumb ad targeted too widely you’ll waste your money.

And there are all those advertisers who ask you to “like” their ads or their produces. Perhaps that means you will see more of their ads, but even more important is that “like” means “Please send me spam”.

Privacy

In my experience many people raise privacy issues in connection with web sites such as Facebook, or in genealogical research. But very few seem to be willing to discuss the underlying principles of the issues. In a recent blog post Matt Stone raises the same issues. Thinking biblically about privacy – Glocal Christianity:

I gather many believe privacy is a good thing; that it’s erosion is a bad thing. But of what basis do we found such beliefs? Is the foundation biblical, or merely cultural? How might we go about articulating a cross cultural ethic for instance?

I think that is quite important, because many people do not seem to regard privacy as an issue at all. It is simply not up for debate. They say “That’s private,” and for them that is the end of the discussion.

But as Matt Stone points out, it is an issue. It is debatable, because many people have different ideas about what is private and what is not, and how important privacy is. He asks if this is merely cultural, and I think that for most people it is. We each have our own ideas about what is private, and what is not; about information that we are willing to share with others and information that we do not wish to share. But because we rarely discuss these with other people, there is no common standard, and no shared understanding.

In our family history research we have come across relatives who are suspicious of the whole enterprise. They prefer the past to be forgotten, and rather resent our looking into matters that they think ought to have been buried and forgotten. This sometimes extends to things that one might regard as trivial. For example, when my father-in-law, Keith Greene, died in 1983, we wrote about it in a kind of open letter to friends and family members, and included a brief obituary, as a kind of appreciation for him. Among other things we included what we regarded as an amusing incident. He worked for a shipping firm, Rennies, in Durban, and travelled to Maputo in Mocambique once a month. Relations between apartheid South Africa and newly-independent Mocambique were not cordial, and Mocambique had many shortages, so he usually took a carload of groceries and things like toothpaste for people in the Rennies office in Maputo. On one trip they had two pigeons in a cage, and since the pigeons were livestock, and would have to be smuggled in, they stopped at a lay-by just before the border, and jettisoned the cage. But when they got to the border, they found it was closed for three days. They rushed back to the lay-by to get the cage again, but it was gone, and so they not only had to find a place to keep the pigeons, but also a car-load of frozen food, until the border re-opened.

We thought it was an amusing incident that threw light on life in South Africa, and its relations with Mocambique, but my mother-in-law was furious with us for putting it in the letter. “That’s private,” she said. End of discussion. She clearly drew the line between what was private and what could be shared with others in a different place from where we did. And we found that that was true of many of that generation.

On the other hand, I did draw the line somewhere. The letters were posted in addressed envelopes, and we intended that they should be read by the intended recipients, though we would not have minded if they had shown it to some of their friends. We did not intend to publish it a newspaper where it could be read by anyone. Nor did we intend that it should be intercepted by the Security Police and read by their functionaries, though we knew that that was a possibility. Since Keith Greene had died, he would not be making any more trips to Mocambique, so it did not matter if they knew that he once smuggled a couple of pigeons across the border.

On the other hand, I’ve been writing an article about the mentality of the Security Police in South Africa in the apartheid era, based on my own file, and their reports refer frequently to “a sensitive source”, and it is clear that this often refers to someone in the post office reading outgoing mail to foreign countries, which was illegal without a court order, but that did not deter the Security Police. Though we took it for granted that mail was intercepted and telephones tapped, we still regarded that as crossing the line, and as an invasion of privacy. So though we drew the line in a different place from my mother-in-law, we still drew the line somewhere, and if we had evidence of it happening today in the new democratic South Africa we would complain, probably to the Human Rights Commission.

A student friend of mine went to teach in the rural village of Postmasburg in the Northern Cape, and once in my travels I turned aside to visit her. She was amazed at the lack of privacy and the propensity for gossip. Everyone in town knew everyone else’s business, and the main souces of village gossip were the operators at the (manual) telephone exchange and the doctor’s receptionist.

A few years later, when we lived in a similar small town (Melmoth in Zululand) we discovered the same thing, except that an additional vector of gossip was the golf course. Local calls were free in those days, and if people were going out to dinner, they would call the exchange and let them know, and so calls would be put through to their dinner hosts. That was the equivalent of SMS, but considerably less private. And of course the party lines that went to the farms were notorious for people listening in.

So there are different privacy standards for rural areas and cities.

I think the idea of privacy is also very much linked to the modern worldview. The Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment encouraged the notion of the individual point of view, and perspective (based on a single viewpoint), and this notion also gave rise to the idea of privacy (see also Notes from underground: The ikon in an age of neo-tribalism).

I can’t recall that anyone has defined privacy, or expounded the principles on which it is based, or said how we should decide on the limits. And the Bible records the life of premodern societies, so I very much doubt if they had very much notion of “privacy”, so I don’t think we will find a “biblical” view of it, or succeed in defining it biblically.

U.S. defends laptop searches at the border | csmonitor.com

People in the US seem to have a very swivel-eyed idea of privacy. They object to identity documents and the like, yet seem to put up with this sort of thing with hardly a squeak. To me this is real Gestapo/KGB stuff, and carrying an identity document is just part of normal life. It’s funny how cultures differ.

U.S. defends laptop searches at the border | csmonitor.com:

Is a laptop searchable in the same way as a piece of luggage? The Department of Homeland Security believes it is.

For the past 18 months, immigration officials at border entries have been searching and seizing some citizens’ laptops, cellphones, and BlackBerry devices when they return from international trips.

In some cases, the officers go through the files while the traveler is standing there. In others, they take the device for several hours and download the hard drive’s content. After that, it’s unclear what happens to the data.

To me that kind of thing implies that the State owns you, body and soul, and can steal your ideas, your inventions, and your secrets with impunity and no accountability.

It’s what used to happen in South Africa in the bad old days. A fellow called Martin West did a lot of research on African Independent Churches in Soweto. Some of it was published in a book called Bishops and prophets in a black city, but the rest was stored in the Christian Institute offices and seized in an SB raid. It has never reappeared. Months of research just vanished. And now the US is doing the same sort of thing.

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