I’ll let you in on a secret: I hate sharing any of my personal information with any company or person I don’t actually know. OK, for the people who know me that’s not really a secret, but I still need to put that out there because it’s true. I would gladly pay for anything with dollars than data, and that includes Android or Chrome or any of Google’s other services. Not because I think my data would be handled better if I were to exchange money, but because I’d rather not share it at all. Having said that, I know that I have to if I want to be able to use products or services that are worth a damn.
That’s because of the same things that got Facebook into its latest privacy mess. The same data that can be used to allegedly influence voters by lying to them is also used to make life easier through personalization. The difference is not the data itself or how it’s being collected; the difference is the company that is doing it and how honest it is. Unfortunately, that’s hard to measure, and companies that do snatch up our information are all over the map when it comes to transparency and integrity.
I’d rather pay for Android updates with dollars than data, but inevitably the services wouldn’t be nearly as good if I could.
By now I imagine everyone is tired of hearing about Facebook. Well, too bad because I know me and plenty of other people are never going to stop talking about its practices and why it doesn’t deserve your trust. I also won’t bother telling anyone to delete Facebook since the people that actually care about what Facebook did and what it will do again if given a chance already did the thing. No number of hashtags or witty sayings will make a difference, nor will being that guy who says “I told you so!” then remarks on how he deleted Facebook before it was cool. But I’ll always have plenty to say when it comes to companies that use our data to make their millions, what we get in return, and what we need to know about all of it.
I want to start by clearing up some misconceptions about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Facebook did not sell your data to anyone, and seeing people who know better claiming it did is disheartening. What Facebook did was worse — it sold access to your data. And because of how Facebook tracks you across its platform and the web itself, it sold access to my data as well even though it doesn’t have any of it. That’s the most important distinction; Facebook tracks and keeps enough data that if you talk to me and someone else talks to me, it can build a profile on me based on the things we talked about. Then it lets someone else have access to that data without your or my approval.
Facebook isn’t the only company that collects huge amounts of data about us each and every day. The elephant in the room here is Google, of course, but every other company that provides a service to you, whether that service is free or paid, also collects data. The amount and type of data can vary; I use Signal for messaging and know it collects some user data, but not nearly as much or as sensitive as the data Google collects. I also use products and services from Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Valve, Ubisoft, and the list goes on and each and every one of them collects user data from me. Some of them are more transparent about what they collect and how than others are, but so far none of them have sunk to the Facebook level of dishonesty about what they have on me and what they plan to do with it.
Did I trade my email address for a free copy of FarCry 5 when it launches in a few days? You bet I did, and now I need to hope Ubisoft is cool and doesn’t abuse my trust.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that most everyone reading this is familiar with Siri, Cortana, and Google Assistant. Each of these smart assistants has a level of personalization that changes what it is capable of, and if you’ve used them all it’s easy to say something like Google Assistant knows more about you and can do more for you than Siri, for example. That’s because Google collects and uses more pertinent data than Apple does. Both companies collect the same types of data, both inform you about what they collect and how they will use it, but Google has to retain and aggregate more of it to offer the personalization that makes you want to use its product because that’s how Google makes money. It makes you want to use a thing, and by using it you provide an even better profile of yourself that it can anonymize and use to target advertisements. Apple makes money by selling you a physical product. Microsoft is somewhere in the middle.
What’s important is to realize that these personalized services are built using the same methods that Cambridge Analytica allegedly used to profile people it thought were low-information voters and influence an election. Collect enough information about a person and it’s almost like you know their likes and dislikes well enough to manipulate them. Maybe you want to convince them to vote a certain way, or maybe you want to show them products they will want to buy. At some basic level, there’s little or no difference and data collection itself isn’t the bad guy. It can be, but it can also be the good guy who reminds you that your anniversary is coming up or that you have a doctor appointment next Tuesday at 1:50.
If Google were to follow Facebook’s playbook the results would be far worse than potentially influencing an election. Let’s hope it never happens.
The “bad guy” can only be the company that uses this data in ways that aren’t clear to its users. The really bad guy is the company that not only mistreats its customers but has means for third parties to jump in and molest our data for a fee. Facebook has thrown red flags when it comes to privacy for years by doing things like changing privacy settings when features are added, or playing loose with developer agreements and breaking rules about how they send app updates out. ‘Dishonest’ is really the only word I can find that describes my opinion of the company as a whole.
In contrast, Google is parked atop a mountain of the very same types of sensitive data from over one billion people. So is Apple. So is Microsoft. The difference is that they aren’t doing things with it that expose it to others or something even worse. Each company has had its share of mishaps, and those mishaps correlate against the amount of data they collect; Apple has had privacy issues, Microsoft has had a few more, and Google has had even more. But so far they haven’t been found to be doing anything malicious and privacy blunders are the result of bad decisions or bugs in the giant machines.
And that’s the distinction that’s not being made when we read someone saying we are a product and not a customer when we use free services in exchange for giving up our precious data. That’s lazy and people need to stop saying it and start talking about it instead.
Stay safe, everyone, and #DeleteYourInternet