Facebook and other internet applications are encroaching upon private lives. Is there a way out?
When Facebook unveiled 2014’s Year in Review feature, not everyone was happy. The dissenters didn’t dislike social media; they were people who didn’t need reminders of painful life events. Facebook was forced to apologise when it was made clear the feature was insensitive to many users.
So, when Facebook revealed the On This Day feature in March 2015, it was expected to function on a better algorithm, such as the ability to choose daily notifications for viewing memories.
But how thoughtful can a computer algorithm be, anyway?
In my experience, not a lot. Because a thoughtful human wouldn’t remind me of a status update I made about the birthday of a destructive person from my past. Healing is hard, harder still when your social media account cheerfully reminds you of someone you’d forgotten.
Through On This Day, I saw posts all the way back to 2008. I’d seen who I was as a young girl, and even now, as a semi-adult. My life through the past six years or so was on Facebook. It knows my best friends. It knows how many times I fought with my siblings. It knows which teachers I hated.
I think of this with nostalgia, not fear.
"We collect the content and other information you provide when you use our Services [...] This can include information in or about the content you provide, such as the location of a photo or the date a file was created. We also collect information about how you use our Services, such as the types of content you view or engage with or the frequency and duration of your activities.
We also collect content and information that other people provide [...] such as when they share a photo of you, send a message to you, or upload, sync or import your contact information."
The fact that Facebook’s privacy settings, are constantly changing means even the most tech-savvy user cannot successfully protect their information. User information is also shared with advertisers and vendors, but we are told,
"We do not share information that personally identifies you […] with advertising, measurement or analytics partners unless you give us permission."
An individual’s privacy does not end at their name, email address, or workplace. Right to privacy means you should be able to share your favourite television shows or books online without having to give away that same information to a corporation, which will then share that information with third parties. No one should be able to sell your preferences for profit, or justify doing so because they are providing you a free service.
In late 2014, Facebook’s Android app was updated, and there was a distinct change in the permissions a user grants Facebook when installing the app. Globally, netizens do not read the terms and conditions they consent to when signing up for applications or social media websites. So, it is not surprising the mobile app slips in permissions, including accessing text messages, call logs, galleries, without the explicit consent of the user. This is what users are signing up for when they install Facebook on their phone: unfettered access to data stored on their phones.
The problem is people usually do not think along these lines when they think of privacy. This could be a sense of complacency which comes from habit, never questioning whether there is a possibility of change.
"You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct-- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized." Orwell wrote these lines in a fictional dystopia titled, 1984.
However, that dystopia is no longer fiction. Big Brother is watching us, and has been for a very long time. We have Edward Snowden to thank for revealing the extent to which we are watched. Even though Snowden’s revelation pushed this debate into the mainstream, there is still too much acceptance that social media corporations are entitled to pry into our private lives, providing corporations or states backdoor access to our every move.
A farfetched idea, but in our current state it seems entirely plausible: we are destined to run a course similar to the surveillance in 1984, only to reach our zenith in a real life version of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley in which humans are born into set castes, socially-conditioned to accept their lot and discouraged to think critically.
We are being socially conditioned to accept that it is okay for corporations to retain private data about us, that it is their legal right to do so. We are conditioned into thinking this retention of our individuality is a fair exchange for making a funny status update or running a profitable Facebook page.
Facebook is not alone in its violation of privacy; applications like Snapchat, which offer supposedly innovative ways of connecting with other individuals, offer little in terms of privacy.
The problem does not begin and end at social media either. With a renewed applicability of the Internet of Things(IoT), one wonders how much of our lives will remain individual, and how much will be absorbed in the collective.
With all our private information out there, down to what time we are at home or at work, the even nature of crime will change; criminals can just hack into the systems and gadgets we are becoming dependent on to break into our homes, our lives.
In the beginning of 1984, the protagonist, Winston, is wary of the connected devices around him, avoiding turning his face towards the telescreen, knowing the Thought Police could be watching at any moment. With the connectivity IoT brings, this could well be our future.
None of this means technology is evil -- it is absolutely fantastic. The problem lies with those who misuse technology for power, and refuse to stop doing so. Knowledge is power, and we live in a world where power is coveted and treasured far more than human rights or right to privacy.
That power now lies in big data, and mass surveillance. It is packaged and sold to us in the form of shiny tech and slick apps which makes us more dependent on technology which can, is, and inevitably will be used on a much larger scale to control us as individuals.
And the blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of those creating tech with little regard for individual rights to pander to capitalist desires. The blame for this rests on those in power who misuse tech to violate the rights of citizens, to conduct espionage on other countries.
We need to reclaim technology and the Internet, and push back at those who try to misuse it. Ours could be an incredible future if we can ensure the advancements we make as a species do not come at the cost of compromising on our rights -- especially online.
We need to reassess our definition of privacy as well as the value we place on our individuality -- individuality is now intrinsically tied with two realities, that of the real world, and that of our cyber presence. The Internet is no longer a tool; it is fast becoming a public space where we must function the same way as we do in the real world -- as citizens of the Earth, of separate countries, entitled by law and by morals to certain rights.