Our civilization has entered the digital age. The technological realm has become pervasive, and we can hardly escape it in our daily interactions. But can we trust those steering the ship? As each day brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception, we need to be more aware than ever. With today’s hasty technological development, few people stop to examine how these changes will affect our privacy, liberty, or our ability to control our own lives. Each week, Liberty Nation’s You’re Never Alone will catch you up on the facts you need to know.
This week, we look present a Facebook special – What does the social media giant’s future hold and what does it mean for your personal information? And it is facing a new criminal investigation?
Could you survive a few hours without social media? Facebook WhatsApp, and Instagram users experienced a service interruption this week – some people failed to notice, while others may be questioning their addiction to expressing themselves online after finding themselves at a loss or simply switching over to Twitter. Is this social media empire starting to fail or gearing up for a whole new stage of evolution?
Finding his company embroiled in scandal after scandal over privacy breaches and misuse of data, CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently unveiled a “privacy-focused vision for social networking,” that he seems to hope will soothe the fears of any who are losing faith in the site. The plan largely involves shifting the company’s focus from public internet postings to encrypted private or small group messages, similar to the existing format of its subsidiary WhatsApp. It also reiterates the company’s intention to merge its Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram apps so that information could be shared across these platforms.
Zuckerberg is trying to reframe Facebook’s public image, but it’s not entirely surprising that he has faced skepticism. Accusations have been made that the move is merely a PR stunt or a strategic move to expand the business into more areas of communication. One major criticism is that the vision does not mention the company’s handling of meta-data – the patterns of activity surrounding messages – which, as Zuckerberg stated in a recent interview at Harvard, can be more useful than looking at the actual content.
Facebook Selling Your Data, Again
Facebook may be trying to rebrand itself, but it first has to deal with the outstanding claims against it – including recent allegations made by The New York Times.
The paper reports that a grand jury in New York City’s Eastern district is investigating Facebook over violations that involved lowering privacy settings in order to share user data with partner companies, between 2010-2017. According to the NYT, at least two major smartphone companies have been subpoenaed in the investigation.
A December 2018 article claimed that Facebook had been eager to offer its services to other companies as a business strategy to stay relevant and boost growth. This involved forming data-sharing partnerships with other companies, some tech firms (Netflix, Spotify, Apple) and others not (such as the Royal Bank of Canada). The deals allegedly granted over 150 companies the ability to secretly bypass privacy settings and gain access to users’ contacts via friends, calendar entries and contact numbers – even if a user had disabled sharing. The partners were also able to read, write and delete private messages, according to the report.
Is the NYT report accurate? While Facebook has not denied that the partnerships existed, they have denied the abuse of data privileges. The company already faces ongoing federal investigations from the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice over anti-competitive practices and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “It has already been reported that there are ongoing federal investigations,” a Facebook spokesman said. “As we’ve said before, we are cooperating with investigators and take those probes seriously. We’ve provided public testimony, answered questions, and pledged that we will continue to do so.”
Facebook’s director of privacy and public policy, Steve Satterfield, acknowledged that the company has been less than perfect in dealing with user data, stating, “We know we’ve got work to do to regain people’s trust … Protecting people’s information requires stronger teams, better technology and clearer policies, and that’s where we’ve been focused for most of 2018.”
And Zuckerberg Wants Your Brains
Trust may have been a focus for 2018, but what will Facebook be concentrating on in the future?
Mark Zuckerberg recently had a long interview with Harvard law school professor Jonathan Zittrain. They started off by discussing Facebook’s ethics and public trust issues, but, as Wired magazine put it, “All was going to plan. Zuckerberg had displayed a welcome humility about himself and his company. And then he described what really excited him about the future—and the familiar Silicon Valley hubris had returned.”
That hubris involved the CEO’s interest in brain-computer interface, which would allow a computer to interact directly with peoples’ brains and enable users to type messages or navigate a page purely by using their thoughts.
Zuckerberg has personally invested $50 million in developing such technology based on a brain implant chip, for use in the medical field. He envisions a similar but non-invasive (at least physically) system that could be worn on Facebook users’ heads like a shower-cap and used to monitor brain activity. He complained that human speech (or, presumably, typing ability) cannot transmit data as quickly as the brain can process information, adding that “We’re working on a system that will let you type straight from your brain about 5x faster than you can type on your phone today”. He said:
“The way that our phones work today, and all computing systems, organized around apps and tasks is fundamentally not how our brains work and how we approach the world … That’s one of the reasons why I’m just very excited longer term about especially things like augmented reality, because It’ll give us a platform that I think actually is how we think about stuff.
Eventually, we want to turn it into a wearable technology that can be manufactured at scale. Even a simple yes/no ‘brain click’ would help make things like augmented reality feel much more natural.”
The “Fifth Amendment implications are staggering,” joked Zittrain, referring to the impossibility of remaining silent or maintaining any level of privacy in a world where one’s thoughts can be read directly from the brain.
Zuckerberg responded to the privacy question by saying that “Presumably, this would be something that someone would choose to use as a product.” Ultimately, he is correct – if Facebook offers mind reading or any other service, it is the consumer’s choice whether or not to sign-up and surrender their information. By now, users are well aware of the risks involved – but is Facebook’s trail of scandals having an impact on peoples’ decisions?
A September Pew survey found that 54% of Facebook users had adjusted their privacy settings in the past year; 42% said they had taken a break from the service for several weeks or longer, and 26% reported they had deleted the app from their phone. 74% of people said they had taken at least one of those actions during the past 12 months. According to Edison Research, fifteen million U.S. users have taken further action and left Facebook since 2017, leading to the platform’s first national usage decline since 2008. The press has begun talking about an exodus from Facebook – this is a good time to ask whether you want to be part of it.
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