Friday, September 23, 2011

Privacy and Facebook

Here is a bit from an article in the NY Times where the journalist interviews Cory Doctorow about companies gathering large amounts of data about us:
The privacy bargain we make with tech companies usually involves giving up some personal data in return for a free service, as with Facebook or many mobile applications.

Doctorow argues it’s hard for people to assign a value to personal data. When the full consequences of giving up that data are still unknown, how do you determine whether the privacy bargain is a fair one?

“It’s hard to get worked up about things where the failure and the deed are separated by a long way,” said Doctorow. “It’s the same reason that people start smoking.”

He insists data-driven companies such as Facebook actively exploit users to solicit as much data as possible. “Facebook trains you to undervalue your privacy. These companies are choca with social scientists now and those people have read their Skinner (an American behaviorist), have read their Adler (founder of the school of the school of individual psychology) and they understand intermittent reinforcement.” In exchange for posting status updates, photos and other information, Facebook users are intermittently rewarded with attention from people they care about. This mechanism can have addictive qualities similar to gambling.


Tech companies often do not offer clear or easy privacy choices to users. Facebook constantly changes its privacy settings to push the default towards more public data, and its Byzantine custom privacy settings are bewildering for a new user. “Complexifying a proposition is usually there to stop you from finding out whether the deal is good,” comments Doctorow.

With mobile applications, the choice is often between giving the application all the data it requests or not installing at all.


One of the reasons that we undervalue out personal data seems to be that the threat is not visceral and concrete. “In technology we often have this core problem of taking a fairly abstract social harm and rendering it concrete,” concludes Doctorow. “I think science fiction is rubbish at predicting the future, but it can create narratives that become part of our discourse. Imagine it’s 1947 and Orwell hasn’t written 1984 yet, and you’re trying to explain to someone why you don’t want to be electronically surveiled.”
In other words, we are like those naive animals that don't understand that cars kill and wander out on the road at night only to be flattened one day as our past comes back to bite us in the ass.

My complaint about the tech companies is that they require you to contractually sign off of a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo which is (a) long and boring, (b) mostly unintelligible, and (c) puts liabilities on you while ensuring that the service provider has no liabilities. That clause (c) is the real killer because under the legal system it is effect "forever". You could have just given away rights to your first born and not know it. That kind of legal system is insane.

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