Even Facebook Wishes It Could Clear Its History

FacebookThis year it was revealed that a lot more apps are automatically sending data to Facebook. In some cases this happens  even if the user is logged out of Facebook. For Android devices this includes an odd mix that includes Spotify, Kayak, Yelp, Shazam, Instant Heart Rate, Duolingo, TripAdvisor and The Weather Channel.

More recently, a Wall Street Journal study found that apps in Apple's iOS App Store are doing the same thing. In some cases, you have to wonder why the apps are sending personal data on things like like age, body weight, blood pressure, and menstrual cycles. 

Instant Heart Rate: HR Monitor is an app that was sending a user's heart rate to Facebook immediately after it was recorded, and Flo Period & Ovulation Tracker passed on when a user was having her period or when she informed that app about an intention to get pregnant.

Not to exonerate Facebook, but the apps were not "required" to pass that data to Facebook. Part of the blame certainly goes to the app developers for some laziness. Many developers use Facebook's pre-built software development kit (SDK). These pre-built SDKs allow developers to quickly build apps and the SDK will typically transmit most of the data automatically to Facebook.

Actually, Facebook claims that it tells app developers not to send "health, financial information or other categories of sensitive information." Since the WSJ report, they are telling developers of the flagged apps to stop sending that type of information. 

Why would Facebook want that kind of information anyway? It always comes down to targeting advertising. 

Denise Howell's latest free newsletter reminds us that Facebook's mark Zuckerberg had promised last year that there would be a "Clear History" feature that would allow users to check what information applications and websites have shared with Facebook and delete it. So far, it has not been released.

Denise (a well known lawyer due to her podcasting and social media presence) says:

It hasn’t happened yet, but the FTC is expected to impose a record-breaking fine against Facebook resulting from the company’s failure to comply with a 2011 consent order aimed at privacy violations that took place over eight years ago. In the ensuing eight years, Facebook’s privacy record hasn’t exactly been pristine. Accordingly, EPIC, Common Sense Media, and others think Facebook should be fined in excess of $2 billion. Jason Kint told Vice Media, “[a] fine almost certainly would not be enough to change Facebook’s behavior — we’re past that,” and I’m inclined to agree with him. For example: even after all the outrage against and scrutiny of Facebook over the past year, if you as a Facebook user want to make all your past posts private, viewable only to you, and if you want to do this all at once (as opposed to one post at a time; which is possible but who does that), you simply can’t. This is true even though Facebook actually provides a batch feature to limit the visibility of past posts; it just limits the ability to limit, which ends at “Friends.” (Let s/he here who hasn’t over-friended on Facebook cast the first stone.) If Facebook remains tone-deaf to this unfathomable extent, then perhaps it does need more than a record-breaking fine to encourage it to course-correct. Oh, and that “Clear History” tool Zuck announced at F8 last year? The one that was supposed to let people delete Facebook’s record of what they’ve clicked, Web sites they’ve visited, and other information Facebook gets from sites and apps using FB’s ads and analytics, and was ALSO supposed to let people turn off FB’s collection of their browsing history? Yeah, that was last May, and “Clear History” is nowheresville. So, what’s a lawmaker to do?

Working in public relations for Facebook must be a tough job these days. Clear your history, indeed.

In looking back at my own posts about Facebook, I found one from March 2006 in which I said "So You Think Facebook Is a Waste." Thirteen years ago the idea of social media was treated by many as a fad. Facebook was a two-year old site but was alreday the seventh-most heavily trafficked site on the Internet with 5.5 billion page views. It was threatening enough as a business that Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation bought Facebook''s only competitor ta the time - MySpace. There an entire chunk of the younger population who never even heard of MySpace, which in 2005 sold for $580-million. Not a good investment, but who knew because the site still had more than 37 million unique visitors in February 2006 with 23.5 billion page views. It was the second-most trafficked site after Yahoo beating Google. 

How things have changed.

Ethical Tech

Reading the latest newsletter from Amber Mac a topic that caught my education eye is ethical tech. Hope educational use of tech is always stressing ethical use, but is this also a topic that is being taught? 

At the end of 2018, The New York Times posted an article titled, "Yes, You Can Be an Ethical Tech Consumer. Here’s How" by Brian Chen, which notes that products that we enjoy continue to create privacy, misinformation and workplace issues. That article makes some recommendations, ranging from Boycott and Shame (not so radical if you consider the 2018 #DeleteFacebook campaign that I don't think was all that successful) to paths that mean we Give Up Convenience for Independence - something that is as easy as fulfilling that resolution to diet and exercise.

Of course, I am on the side of educating the public and our students at all grade levels about the ethical use and applications of technology. Students are largely consumers of the tech, but they will be the creators. Did Mark Zuckerberg ever have an courses or lesson on the ethical use of technology?

I know that at NJIT where I taught, there were a number of courses that touch on ethical issues. In the management area, "Legal and Ethical Issues: Explores the legal and ethical responsibilities of managers. Analyzes extent to which shareholders should be allowed to exercise their legitimate economic, legal, and ethical claims on corporate managers; extent of regulation of a particular industry, individual rights of the employee and various corporate interests, and corporate responsibility to consumers, society, and conservation of natural resources and the environment." Of course, you have to get to the graduate level for that course.

In my own humanities area of Professional and Technical Communication, we started in the foundation courses in addressing ethics in communications - but it is only one topic in a busy curriculum along with usability analysis, visual information; global diversity and communication concerns and communicating with new technologies.

In computer science, "Computers, Society and Ethics" is a 300 level course that examines the historical evolution of computer and information systems and explores their implications in the home, business, government, medicine and education. The course includes discussions of automation and job impact, privacy, and legal and ethical issues. Obviously, ethical use needs to be a part of many courses at a science and technology school, as well as being the subject matter of entire courses.

AmberAmber says in her newsletter, that looking ahead "We will also continue to see social responsibility expand beyond the consumer. For example, let's think about investment dollars into new technologies. In the US alone, according to PitchBook, venture capital investment in US companies hit $100B in 2018. If we dig into these dollars, there are very few memorable headlines about ethical investments, but that is bound to change - especially as executives at large tech companies set new standards.

Engineers, designers, technical communicators and managers need to be better prepared for the world they are entering professionally. I proposed a course at NJIT on Social Media Ethics and Law that has yet to be approved or offered.

Amber continues that in terms of momentum on this ethical use  in companies, she points to software giant Salesforce as a leader. CNBC reported, the company will have its first Chief Ethical and Humane Use Officer in 2019. And she points to a company that prides itself on being ethical and sustainable, Patagonia, as being "the north star of ethical business practices" and suggests that tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg should take a long look at Patagonia's many years of dedicated corporate responsibility. Patagonia announced they will donate the $10M the company saved via GOP tax cuts to environmental groups. Amber points out that Patagonia has a long history of providing consumers with access to their supply chain footprint and she asks if that might be the kind of thing that Gen Z may demand from the companies from whom they purchase. They might - if they are properly educated on the ethical use of technology.

Data Protection and Privacy - Europe and the U.S.

If you had a meeting and Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a speech and he was followed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and after the lunch break Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai were on the screen giving video messages, you would consider this to be a pretty high-powered meeting.

That was the lineup for some European data regulators at the 40th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners, held this year in the European Parliament in Brussels.

I saw part of it on a recent 60 Minutes. Tim Cook talked about the "crisis" of "weaponized" personal data. It's not that Apple doesn't collect data on its users, but companies like Facebook and Google rely much more on user data to sell advertising than hardware-based Apple.

The focus in that segment is on Europe where where stricter laws than in the U.S. are already in place. Of course, they affect American companies that operate in Europe, which is essentially all major companies.

Multi-billion dollar fines against Google for anti-competitive behavior re in the news. The European Union enacted the world's most ambitious internet privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Tim Cook said he supports the law, but Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, says that "Americans have no control today about the information that's collected about them every second of their lives." The only exception is some guaranteed privacy on the internet for children under 13, and some specific medical and financial information.

This is an issue that will be even more critical in the next few years. Since GDPR was passed, at least ten other countries and the state of California have adopted similar rules. And Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Amazon now say they could support a U.S. privacy law. Of course, they want input because they want to protect themselves.

 

Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World

Data Privacy Law: A Practical Guide

Fifty-Two Thousand Data Points

data abstractionFacebook has had a tough year in the press and with its public face (though its stock is holding up fine). There has been a lot of buzz about hacks and data being stolen and fake news and Senate hearings and general privacy concerns. All of these are legitimate concerns about Facebook and about other social media and e-commerce and financial site too.

But how much does Facebook really know about a user? There is the information you willingly provided when you joined and all the things you have given them by posting and clicking Likes and other interactions. Though that volunteered data is often overlooked by users, there is more concern about data you have not knowingly given them but have access to anyway.

I do believe that Facebook is more focused now on privacy and user experience, it needs that data to be a profitable public company. (Disclaimer: I am a Facebook stockholder - though not in a very big way.)

Facebook is free but, as Mark Zuckerberg had to explain to at least one clueless Senator this past summer, it sells advertising to make a profit. Ad sales are more valuable to companies when they know who they are advertising to, and the more granular that audience can be, the better it is for them and Facebook. It might even be better for you. That is something Google, Amazon, Facebook and many others have been saying for years: If you're going to get ads anyway, wouldn't you rather that they be relevant to your likes and interests?

According to one online post, it you total up what Facebook can know about a user, it comes to roughly 52,000 traits. That comes from three key algorithms. One is DeepText, which looks into data, much of which coming from commercial data brokers. They also use DeepFace, which can identify people in pictures and also suggest that you tag people in a photo.

The third algorithm is FB Learner Flow, which might be the most clever of all. It focuses on the decisions you have yet to make. Using predictive analytics, it decides which ads should be shown to you that you would be likely to click and even purchase a product.

Amazon will allow you to let it send out products before you order them based on your previous orders and usage. This is not difficult to predict. My pharmacy will tell me it is time to reorder a prescription and even process and deliver it without my input. That is not so predictive; my 30 daily pills will run out in 30 days.

When Amazon suggests that I might like a product similar to other things I have bought, it's not very creepy. When I see an ad or suggestion from them about a product or even a topic that I was just searching on Google, THAT is creepy.

Similarly, Facebook might give me an ad or a "sponsored" post at the top of my feed because of my recent activity and the activity of friends that I follow - especially those that I interact with frequently with Likes, shares and comment. 

It would be interesting to see what the feeds look like for some friends of mine who are Facebook lurkers and who rarely post anything and seem to rarely even log into the site. What are they seeing when it comes to ads?