Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Facebook Users and Informed Consent

This op-ed is a week old, but over at The New York Times, Zeynep Tufekci wrote about Facebook surveillance in general and with respect to the 2016 election. 

In it, she makes an important point about, while user profiling and surveillance are part of Facebook's business model, it's likely that most users do not give informed consent to everything the company does:
"Facebook doesn’t just record every click and 'like' on the site. It also collects browsing histories. It also purchases 'external' data like financial information about users (though European nations have some regulations that block some of this). Facebook recently announced its intent to merge 'offline' data — things you do in the physical world, such as making purchases in a brick-and-mortar store — with its vast online databases.

Facebook even creates 'shadow profiles' of nonusers. That is, even if you are not on Facebook, the company may well have compiled a profile of you, inferred from data provided by your friends or from other data. This is an involuntary dossier from which you cannot opt out in the United States.
.....Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you had explicitly consented to turn over your Facebook data to another company. Do you keep up with the latest academic research on computational inference? Did you know that algorithms now do a pretty good job of inferring a person’s personality traits, sexual orientation, political views, mental health status, substance abuse history and more just from his or her Facebook 'likes' — and that there are new applications of this data being discovered every day?
Given this confusing and rapidly changing state of affairs about what the data may reveal and how it may be used, consent to ongoing and extensive data collection can be neither fully informed nor truly consensual — especially since it is practically irrevocable."
Most Facebook users know that the company generates revenue by selling ads, many likely sense that these ads are targeted to them. But, it's likely that most users don't know the extent of it. See, for instance, this Twitter thread.

As I've noted before, we should be terrified if Mark Zuckerberg actually does choose to run for office, particularly given the number of human profiles, including profiles of people who don't even use Facebook, his company has seemingly amassed.

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