Yeah, you’re being watched

Published 3:00 am Friday, April 6, 2018

By Greg Price

Since 1999, I’ve spoken to over 400,000 attendees of various conferences and community events.  Typically, the sessions addressed Internet Safety or Cyber-defense Techniques.  Many considered my concerns about personal privacy and data security a bit alarming, perhaps even paranoid.  I recall an attendee during one event, during the question and answer period, asking if I wore an aluminum hat.  Well, not exactly, but, I maintain a hefty skepticism and deliberate vigilance when it comes to our increasingly-connected technology, especially social networking tools.

Not surprisingly, Facebook fell short of its fans’ idealistic expectations, again.  News of Facebook’s arrangement with Cambridge Analytica shocked the public: 50 million users’ data, and possibly more, were combed for various data points, triggered by an online personality quiz.  Did the effort sway the 2016 Presidential election?  Or, was it Facebook’s news feed, the Russians, or, wait, was it the data scientists from the previous Presidential team, the social media micro-targeting experts, who abused Facebook?

Let’s hit pause for a moment.  What is Facebook?

Facebook is an advertising platform that offers social interaction tools.  In 2017, ninety-eight percent of Facebook’s revenue ($40 billion) came from advertising, more specifically, targeted advertising.  Every post, every click, every follow, every friend present an opportunity to harvest more data, to construct a social profile that seeks to describe you, your behaviors, your actions very well.  Facebook’s ability to collect data from several sources and create detailed profiles of people should alarm everyone.  Those types of profiles can be abused.

Facebook’s revenue is dependent upon how well it knows you.  Around 2012, a now-popular phrase appeared on the web, “If you’re not paying, you’re the product.”  I’d offer that the phrase is a modern take on the classic “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  Facebook is a publicly-traded company, they intend to make money.  What you exchange for use of their social platform is the data that empowers its advertising machinery.  Are you, or, more specifically, your data, the product?  Sure, but, Facebook explains its activities within the terms and conditions agreement that is presented for account provision.  At least, that’s what we’ve been told for years.  “You agreed to the terms, you allowed the access to your contacts, to your location, to your microphone, etc.”.

However, the terms and conditions document, now tens of thousands of words in length, is at the core of the privacy standards battle.  Should government regulation be enacted?  Many now seek government oversight, perhaps similar to what is happening in Europe with general data protection programs.

What can you do?  Well, let’s be realistic, if you’ve used Facebook, or other social tools, for a while, your data has been collected and used, likely for advertising purposes.  This week, Facebook announced an effort to centralize the privacy tools into a more intuitive menu option.  The biggest addition to the privacy center is the ability to delete anything you’ve shared, responded to, and your search history.  You can download a copy of your Facebook data, though based on some accounts, the data may be lacking.  Also, a new option for changing how you’re tracked is present in the mobile app.  Deleting the account continues to be a bit of a unicorn.  The only option offered under the general account settings is deactivation.  That feature only hides your account.  For instructions on account deletion, use a search engine to locate the process, which involves a manual request to Facebook and a ninety-day waiting period.

What’s the solution?  Regulation?  Perhaps.  However, I wonder if Facebook were to simply abandon the ad-driven model and go to a paid subscription model, what would happen?  The issues with fraudulent accounts would be easier to address, age verification would be simple, and, you could get to what you want: sharing without the debris field of ads and weird news feeds.  But, we’ve become accustomed to “free” web content, would the account holder be willing to exchange cash for a cleaner playing field?  I don’t know.

Obfuscation is a fun game with our current online world.  I enjoy generating odd, interesting content and posting it to news sites, discussion boards.  I ask Amazon’s Alexa weird questions.  I delete and rearrange my search results.  Why?  Obfuscation, for now, is a way to confuse the data harvesters, and, perhaps maintain some measure of privacy.

But, for now, let me return to fashioning a larger aluminum hat, the recent Google issues have me concerned.

William Greg Price is the Chief Technology and Security officer for Troy University and the Director of the Alabama Computer Forensics Institute. He founded the first regional digital forensics lab in the nation with the U.S. Department of Justice and developed the Cyberkids Awareness Program for the Alabama Attorney General’s Office.He currently represents District 2 on the Pike County Board of Education.