03 May 2018

My privacy, part two: Facebook

Ruth Bascom Bike Path, Coburg Road overpass, Eugene, Oregon, USA.

A section of my Vkontakte (vk.com) timeline. Vkontakte
allows access to copyrighted music for an extra fee.
(Part one: My privacy and your transparency.)

On a typical day, my Facebook feed will tell me about three or four birthdays, at least one accident or sickness, news about a pregnancy or new birth, and, this season, several graduations. Through groups and pages I've liked on Facebook, I'll learn about a new publication in Russian or a new blog post by a Quaker somewhere in the world.

Furthermore, I'll find a post criticizing Donald Trump, or praising him, and a response going strongly in the other direction, followed by a cascade of others weighing in. Knowing the people involved, I'm guessing that they'll somehow remain friends.

Having recently hunted for a new car, booked a motel room in Wilsonville, and researched travel to Japan by ship, I can also count on ads for Hyundai Sonatas, Celebrity Cruises, and SnoozInn. (That is, if I've got F.B. Purity switched off.)

Very occasionally, Facebook even introduces me to relatives I didn't know I had. (For example, in Argentina!)

I also visit Facebook's Russian competitor, Vkontakte ("In Contact"), nearly every day. My Vkontakte list has only 400 friends (vs 1500 on Facebook) but that's where most of my former students and colleagues from the last ten years hang out. That's where I see what they're doing with their education and talents, and through VK they continue to send me seasonal greetings and music recommendations ... along with their grammar and usage questions. I keep track of my favorite Russian blues bands and musicians and listen to their recent performances. And despite changes in ownership, Vkontakte continues to provide a platform for political diversity.

On any news site other than FB and VK, I'll be kept up to date on all the scandalous ways these networks have made money by compromising my privacy. Yasha Levine's new book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, removes all sentimentality about the Web's idealistic pretensions: military priorities are deeply embedded in the Internet's history and ongoing development to this day. There's nothing particularly paranoid or conspiratorial in acknowledging that any major Internet-based enterprise will find itself entangled with governments or cybercriminals, or both.

Are these vectors of intrusion so different from other aspects of life? Mass media channels (print and broadcast) reflect the interests of their owners and decisionmakers, with varying levels of candor. Advertisers seek to influence us. Salespeople try to close the deal. The technical equipment used to record, produce, print, broadcast, transport their output is often built by military contractors. Mail can be opened, telephones tapped. Even our garbage can be examined. How is the Internet different?

That is not entirely a rhetorical question. There are some things that make the Internet unique,  including the complexity and invisibility of its channels and nodes to the average end user; the sheer volume and speed of its content; and its many ways of tailoring content and feigning care and intimacy to beguile each individual audience member.

Does all this cold reality mean that I should give up my daily feed of graduations, medical emergencies, birthdays, and motel ads? Here's a bit of what goes into my consideration of this question. (Do you think I might be fooling myself?)
  • I'm deeply skeptical about the ability of any Internet-based company, no matter how idealistic, to guard my data. In the very rare instances where I need reasonable security, I use a VPN and encryption. (In a couple of cases I also use two-factor authentication.) But even those measures are far from perfect; my biggest defense, realistically, is my own unimportance in the context of the Internet's billions of participants.
  • Similarly, I don't resent Facebook's success, because it's that very success in signing up a significant proportion of Earth's population that allows me to stay in touch with so many families, friends, church organizations, and content providers. Furthermore, the more subscribers Facebook has, the more invisible I become as just one individual. Facebook may make assumptions about my tastes and politics, but I'm interesting to their marketers only as part of a market segment, not as an individual.
  • I militantly ignore news bulletins and rumors in Facebook and Vkontakte unless they're convenient to verify. Their sources likely have a political, emotional, or commercial stake in how I respond.
  • Finally, to be honest, I'm not sure that I want total invisibility. I live on this planet; my friends and I take up some space here. If I occupy a few bytes of data in a few databases, at least I've registered my existence. It's not the personal details that I resent sharing; as I said in part one, what matters to me is the system's trustworthiness in not using those details against us. To demand trust, to participate in the political process of building that trust, might require some thoughtful compromises.

Betsy Kent hopes you don't abandon Facebook. Does she make the case?

On the digitally revealed life ... and the difference between emotions and feelings.

Yasha Levine (Surveillance Valley) on Kevin Rothrock's The Russia Guy.

A religious journalist on Waffle House hero vs Waffle House gunman.

On the racial demons that may help explain evangelical support for Donald Trump. (Lots of helpful links.)

Are you and I missionaries in a secular land? ("Christendom has died. Not Christianity, statistically, but Christendom.")

From Moscow!


John H. Maurer (No relation) said...

I have been on the Internet since before there was an Internet (it was called the World wide web then). I have never gotten on facebook or any other social network for the same reason I got rid of my television thirty years ago. I believe marketers exist solely to try to get me to buy things I don't want for money I don't haveand to seduce me into mammon instead of Christ. And Facebook etc. are all about marketing. From recent news I've decided that snooping is another good reason. And I have VPN on all the time.

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, John! Your priorities make a lot of sense to me.

I want to push back on the definition of marketers, having worked with some of the best. An ethical marketer works hard to connect people for honest transactions based on their highest shared values.

I agree that snooping is bad. I still think that the power to invade privacy is very much like the power to destroy.