Facing facts about our privacy

I’m a big fan of social media, as you probably know, but I’m no big fan of the way it uses your data without informing you clearly and regularly of the implications.

Four Corners is going to be about this on Monday night. I encourage you to watch it as I feel the convenience of web searching and the fulfilment of sharing things socially should be constantly overshadowed by the need for us all to take responsibility for the information we share and where we share it as well as the need for multinational companies to respect personal privacy.

This tension is constantly debated but will never reach a conclusion, I fear, because the technology continues to evolve at a faster rate than the debate.

You can legislate, and you can come to a personal decision, but then Facebook releases a new feature or starts exploring new information and you need to start all over again.

A few months ago I ditched the Facebook app – mostly because it slowed down my two-year- phone, but also because it helped them track more of what I did each day. I now only access it via my phone or desktop’s web browser. It’s not a failsafe solution, but it’s a start.

Three friends at work tell me that they are convinced Instagram is listening to their conversations – they all claim that they spoke about a topic and within hours were seeing advertisements on Instagram and Facebook related to the topic. They claim to have not googled such topics and may have only mentioned the idea – e.g. taking a world trip, buying a bike – once.

For the record, Facebook claims they do not do this and you can manually switch off the access both apps have to your smartphone’s microphone. But not everyone buys it.

My friend, a data scientist, also revealed a few interesting things to me recently. He works for a university in Sydney which has access to large array of information about every student. Seemingly, they are able to mine this information for whatever purpose they want while students remain largely unaware, or at best, ill informed.

Universities can now learn how many students have looked up the text that their lecturer has asked them to read. They can instantly tell how many students have opened links that the lecture has shared. They can then see how far each student has read into an article on how long they spent reading it.

Think about the implications of this; before you hand in your paper your lecturer knows if you actually read the email, clicked on the link, looked at an article and for how long you read it.

Even more worrying is the trend for universities to tailor degrees towards classes and strategies that attract the greatest student engagement. What engages students the most may not be the subjects or the readings that they most need to learn. Conversely, what engages them most may not be what earns the university the most money, presenting a  dilemma where more courses are created to service budgets and course work drifts further and further from vocational skills.

So, just to recap — Facebook already knows a lot about you, your friends, what you click on, what they click on, and already knows what many of your actions will be before you have even made them. We all implicitly accept this but as they demand more trust, the ethical complications compound.

They measure their own success by their own privately set metrics and yet they still poll users with little context – like this quick survey I received just yesterday:


I can see the headline now – More people than ever say Facebook is a force for good in the world. [Update: December 2017 – “Facebook admits social media can be bad if you use it in this way“]

The end game of all this is not likely to be good. What Facebook knows, someone else wants, be it their competitor or the government.

Soon, if you are traveling to the US, you may be asked for your social media passwords at the immigration desk (Guardian: UK tourists to US may get asked to hand in passwords or be denied entry). So, in theory, all the info Facebook has compiled on you that you can retrieve, now a foreign government can also.

You may want to leave your personal smartphone at home and buy a burner on arrival.

And of course, governments in Australia and overseas are loosening the rules about what they can gain without a warrant, while they tighten the rules on what mobile and internet providers must reveal about you, when asked.

The tech giants may be fighting back with strongly worded documents, but meanwhile, the CIA is finding their own way in.

I have read a few ways (listed below) to make your life more secure… see below.

But don’t rely on just what I have recently read. Please do your own research, and change some of your habits. We’re all playing a long game.


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