Sunday, October 18, 2020
Science

The Social Dilemma reveals how our data is tracked

The Social Dilemma reveals how our data is tracked
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Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist at Google featured in the documentary, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald many more people were disengaging from social media after watching it than he expected.

“The goal of the film is not just to get everybody to delete the apps off their phone,” he says. “We all know that that’s impossible to expect from everyone … I think what’s changed is that it’s creating a global shared consensus about a problem.”

To uncover the extent of the problem I set out to find out how much information I had willingly given to the technology giants over the years.

Facebook

Requesting my data from Facebook, which is valued at $US774 billion ($1090 billion) and also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, took just 10 minutes to retrieve the 338 megabytes of data stored about me.

The information includes every time I’ve logged into Facebook, the IP addresses and locations I’ve logged in from, every photo I’ve posted, post that I’ve commented on, event invitations and every friend request I’ve ever rejected (sorry).

However Doctor Belinda Barnet, senior lecturer in media at Swinburne University, says this information is just the beginning of the data Facebook holds on me.

“What Facebook calls platform data is things they consider proprietary to them like the Like button, how long you hover over a post, or how fast you are scrolling, how you are interacting with the platform,” she says. “That betrays a lot of information about you, but you will never get that data. They don’t consider that you own it in the same way that you own the pictures that you post.”

All the information we put on Facebook is categorised and advertisers can use these categories to target advertising.

Advertisers can target based on relationship status of single, engaged, open relationship, separated, domestic partnership, civil union, divorced, widowed or ‘it’s complicated’ and based on life events such as a new job, newly wed, away from family or in a long-distance relationship.

Jim Stewart, founder of digital marketing agency StewArt Media, says the categorisation is so far-reaching that he can target people on Facebook who are interested in “pets (but only cats)” if he wants to.

He says advertisers can also target people who like travelling by accessing anyone who has posted a holiday picture on Facebook.

“You can volunteer your date of birth on Facebook but even if you don’t, Facebook can probably work it out algorithmically from the messages people post,” he says. “I call it scary creepy good because it is scary and creepy but the ability to target from a marketing standpoint is quite powerful.”

A spokesperson for Facebook wouldn’t comment on whether the platform is facing a user backlash as a result of the documentary and says the company’s user numbers continue to grow.

The spokesperson points to Facebook’s response to The Social Dilemma published earlier this month, where it takes issue with the documentary’s claims and says it buries substance in sensationalism.

The documentary argues technology and social media companies have been deliberately designed to addict us and profit from our data through “surveillance capitalism”, with users as the product.

“In this system, we are the whale, we’re the tree, we’re worth more when we’re strip-mined for our attention,” Harris says.

“You are not the product,” Facebook states in its response. “We provide advertisers with reports about the kinds of people who are seeing their ads and how their ads are performing, but we don’t share information that personally identifies you unless you give us permission.”

Facebook claims The Social Dilemma gives a distorted view of how social media platforms work to create a “convenient scapegoat” for what are “difficult and complex societal problems”.

TikTok

While Facebook is the most popular social media network, TikTok – which has an estimated value of $US100 billion – is catching up quickly, particularly amongst younger demographics.

TikTok has been downloaded 2 billion times globally, with an estimated 2.5 million users in Australia and a 50 per cent increase in users since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance and the government has raised concerns the platform could be used to compile a vast digital database of users that could be shared with the Chinese Communist Party.

I requested a download of my information from TikTok and it took several days to arrive, despite only comprising about 700 megabytes.

The data includes my favourite effects, hashtags, sounds, my follower and following list, log-in history, video browsing history and chat history.

Given the controversy surrounding the app, the data collected by TikTok was quite limited, although admittedly I’ve never posted on TikTok as I only use it for work.

TikTok would not comment on The Social Dilemma or the data it collects.

Google

The technology company with the most data stored about me was Google, which has a market capitalisation of over $US1 trillion.

Data specialist Jia Du, founder of agency DuData, said Google’s tentacles are everywhere, with lots of the “back end” of the internet paid for and run by the tech giant.

A request to export my Google data involved downloads from 46 different Google products including everything from my calendar, emails and maps alongside Google Pay, Chrome and YouTube, which Google also owns, and extended to 14 gigabytes of data.

In my advertising settings Google has me categorised as a 35 to 44-year-old female who is married with children, and even goes so far as to estimate my household income as high “because your signed-in activity on Google services is similar to people who’ve told Google they’re in this category”.

It flags my interests as including baked goods (correct), action/adventure films (wrong) and accounting and financial software (not so much, although I am doing my tax return at the moment which might explain it).

A spokesperson for Google declined to comment but pointed to its online ‘Safety Centre’, which states that the online search giant does not sell users’ personal information.

“We use data to serve you relevant ads in Google products, on partner websites and in mobile apps,” it states. “While these ads help fund our services and make them free for everyone, your personal information is not for sale.”

Du says Google is “super-sensitive” about its use of data and very cautious in what it sells to advertisers but notes what is considered personal information by the tech giants is sometimes limited.

“Anything that has my name attached to it, or my tax file number, or traditional identifiers attached to it is considered personal information,” she says. “A device ID – say the ID of my cell phone – that isn’t considered personal information, although it is one very small step to connect that to my account and then to me.”

The protection of Australians’ personal information is an issue the Australian Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner, Angelene Falk, is alert to.

Her office is seeking civil penalties against Facebook, alleging serious and repeated interferences with privacy.

“Our compliance and enforcement focus is on technologies and business practices that record, monitor, track and rely on opaque information-sharing practices,” she says. “Australians now perceive many of the biggest privacy risks to be in the online sphere.”

She wants regulatory change to address concerns about these emerging practices, including reform of the Privacy Act.

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Harris says regulation around collection of data is important but we also need to be concerned with how that data is used by technology companies to make predictions about us.

He cites Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, which gives the example of someone who doesn’t ever tell Facebook they are gay but Facebook knows this based on their click patterns before they even know themselves.

“Once that information is available, advertisers can target that without you even knowing that about yourself and that’s a dangerous asymmetry of power,” he says. “The whole point [of reform] is to change the entire ecosystem.”

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