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Manipulating Reality: Facebook is Listening to You

One thing we have become all too used to is that our reality can be manipulated to create the appearance of something else entirely. Invading another country is defensive, rigged elections are passed off as democracy in action, more guns (or more nuclear weapons) ensure the peace, trade and foreign investment increase jobs at home.  Orwellian logic has become commonplace.

What I am reporting on here is another kind of manipulation: How Facebook and other social media use the information we for the most part unknowingly provide it—including even words we speak in the privacy of our own homes—to advertise products that we didn’t request and almost certainly don’t want, and pass data on to the government.

I am hardly the first to discover this extraordinary capability.  A number of other people have expressed their astonishment and anger when they became aware that key words they used in Facebook and Twitter communication, such as messaging, location, and status, as well as in private conversations anywhere in their homes, were being picked up and almost instantly converted into ads.  You mention a particular sport and a ticketing agency’s ad appears.  You say you would love to drive a Lexus and up pops a Lexus ad.  You talk about a vacation, and a Facebook ad refers you to a Hawaiian beach or a small Paris hotel that—lo and behold—you had actually mentioned just yesterday!

Is this paranoia?  Is Facebook (or Instagram, Google, or Yahoo) capable of listening in on our conversations?  Facebook readily admits that its business model relies on the data we enter or transmit online, that once we join the data essentially becomes Facebook’s property, and that (as Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has argued) most people don’t care all that much about their privacy anyway. Of course Facebook et al. defend their model by telling you they are merely responding to your wants, and that if you wish they can reduce (but not eliminate) advertising if you’ll simply check a list provided in their program settings.  But as to actually listening in, Facebook contends that only you control the microphone, and (according to the head of Facebook security) you must give permission to Facebook to activate it.  Does anyone recall being asked for permission?

You apparently can disable the microphone function in Windows or the Facebook mobile app on your smart phone or tablet.  But does “off” actually mean completely off? Apparently not. My wife Jodi’s and my own experiences after we turned off the microphone on her computer say otherwise.  Note that the ads appeared within seconds of our speaking.

*Jodi made a remark about Robin Wright Penn, the actress. Ads for Sean Penn movies instantly appeared.

*We discussed T-shirts for grandchildren. Ads for just such T-shirts appeared.

*Jodi mentioned our unfinished Scrabble game. Immediately, an ad for the game Yahtzee came up.

*Jodi was describing her appearance relevant to her age, such as laugh lines and gray hair, and an ad for Maybelline “Age Rewind” popped up.

So now you say, OK, but isn’t this snooping illegal, an invasion of privacy?  There have been  large-scale protests of Facebook’s smartphone snooping, but no policy change by Facebook as far as I’m aware.  At a legal level, a Belgian study points out—and by the way, the Europeans are far more upset with and focused on Facebook’s shenanigans than are Americans—“opting out” of advertising is not the same as informed and direct consent.  Moreover, Facebook does not ask for our consent to its acquiring data from other sources, for collecting location data provided in smart phones, for using photos or other data (such as “like”) entered by the user.

I think a fair reading of the Belgian report and Facebook’s most recent (2015) clarifications of policy is that Facebook may collect any and all information stemming from your use of Facebook and from the device you use to access Facebook.  “Any information” means absolutely any data you enter, whether about yourself or third parties, and whether provided in writing, by voice, or in pictures. Even if you elect to terminate your Facebook account, it retains all the information you’ve provided.

There is an additional and even more pernicious issue: the gathering and use of social media data by U.S. government agencies, notably the National Security Agency (NSA).  Thispractice, which Edward Snowden brought to light, includes the participation of Facebook, Apple, and several other technology companies in the NSA’s PRISM program to collect data directly from the companies rather than simply via the Internet.

This intrusion on privacy is now being contested by the European Union.  In 2000, the EU accepted the U.S. proposal to establish a “Safe Harbor” program for transferring personal data collected in Europe by Facebook, Google, and Amazon to the U.S.  That agreement was reevaluated by the European Court of Justice Advocate-General, who maintained that it violates Europeans’ basic rights.  The A-G finds that the data can be “accessed by the NSA and by other United States security agencies in the course of a mass and indiscriminate surveillance.”

The ECJ has just upheld that opinion, declaring Safe Harbor invalid. The court’s ruling is that Safe Harbor “must be regarded as compromising the essence of the fundamental right to respect for private life.” It’s a big blow, though not necessarily a fatal one, to Facebook and others engaged in data transferring in Europe.  The Europeans have been pressing these companies, especially Google and Amazon, on other issues as well, such as with anti-trust legislation. Ideally, the ECJ ruling and other European actions will embolden Americans to stage their own fight for greater privacy and more transparency in the way the technology giants conduct their business.

Does social media’s invasion of privacy bother you, or do you consider the loss of your privacy the price of socializing?  How have you handled your privacy with your computer, phone, or tablet?  Have you had the kinds of listening-in experiences I mentioned?

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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