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Privacy and Social Networks: Facebook Is Using You… With Your Permission

A Chicago law prof, long on the frontlines of technology and the law, foresees a disturbing future in which we’ve ceded our privacy to the social networks that define us. It actually looks a lot like our present, and our past.

Panopticon

 

Lori Andrews has long been one of the most eclectic and forward-thinking figures in the local legal community; the Kent prof has built a worldwide reputation at the intersection of science, technology and law, as Bryan Smith wrote when he profiled her for Chicago last year:

By the late 1990s, Andrews says, she started feeling like the Harvey Keitel character in the movie Pulp Fiction. “I was the cleanup person called in after scientists or doctors had done some strange new thing—the lawyer asked to sort out the rights and responsibilities, the liabilities, and the commercial potential. Should anything be allowable so long as a lawyer can come up with a scheme to deal with it? Or are there some scientific advances that would so change the nature of our society that they should be prohibited?”

Andrews’s latest interest is a bit more prosaic than sheep cloning or genius sperm banks: online privacy, with the book I Know What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy. Its publication was followed by a prominent New York Times editorial, “Facebook Is Using You,” which has been making the rounds on the social network she decries:

The Internal Revenue Service searches Facebook and MySpace for evidence of tax evaders’ income and whereabouts, and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has been known to scrutinize photos and posts to confirm family relationships or weed out sham marriages. Employers sometimes decide whether to hire people based on their online profiles, with one study indicating that 70 percent of recruiters and human resource professionals in the United States have rejected candidates based on data found online.

It’s not just the feds. I got a copy of the Chicago Crime Commission’s “Gang Book,” which has screencaps of local suspected gang members’ Facebook accounts—which include them taunting the cops following their feeds. As usual, it’s the illicit users going up to the edges of the new technology.

But in a lot of ways, it’s not really new at all:

On one recent trip, he saved $10 on a $90 purchase.

And while Hanlon said he figured the store was keeping track of what he buys, he didn’t realize that — for a hefty price — that sort of detailed consumer data is being leveraged by political campaigns trying to decide whether Hanlon is someone they should target as a persuadable voter or even to hit up for a contribution.

It’s all around you. It helped give us the most recent two presidents: George W. Bush, whose “brain,” Karl Rove, was an innovator in the application of business-based “microtargeting” for political campaigns, and Barack Obama, whose campaign is widely recognized to have outpaced the GOP’s successful use of it:

Microtargeting uses computers and mathematical models to take disparate bits of information about voters — the cars they own, the groups they belong to, the magazines they read — and analyze it in a way to predict how likely a person is to vote and what issues and values are most important to him. Often these analyses turn up surprising results; for instance, Democrats have taken advantage of the fact that many evangelical Christians are open to hearing a pro-environmental message.

[snip]

“Candidates and organizations like the Sierra Club and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. now have the time and money to start focusing beyond basic microtargeting and to understanding more advanced voter behavior,” said Vijay Ravindran, chief technology officer at Catalist, based in Washington. “There is a breadth and depth that we did not have before. We were just trying to crawl. There has been a concerted, deep and well-financed effort to catch up with and surpass what has been done on the other side.”

By contrast, Facebook’s and Google’s microtargeting seems comparatively incurious. Facebook is currently trying to sell me on the Lexus GS (which starts at more than my salary). Google thinks I’m a 55-to-64-year-old man with interests in fast food and travel to Florida, and that I want to learn German in 10 days. I have some vague interest in those things, but all three are currently pretty low on my lists of foods, destinations, and languages.

Likewise, some of Andrews’s more interesting concerns have their own meatspace parallels:

Data aggregation has social implications as well. When young people in poor neighborhoods are bombarded with advertisements for trade schools, will they be more likely than others their age to forgo college? And when women are shown articles about celebrities rather than stock market trends, will they be less likely to develop financial savvy? Advertisers are drawing new redlines, limiting people to the roles society expects them to play.

Such concerns—class-based targeted advertising and its implications for viewers—aren’t so much new redlines as old ones in new, virtual neighborhoods. The content of advertising in poor urban neighborhoods has long been of interest to public health professionals:

Research shows that black neighborhoods have more outdoor advertising space than white neighborhoods, and these spaces disproportionately market alcohol and tobacco advertisements. Thus, understanding the factors associated with outdoor advertising panel density has important implications for public health.

That’s a recent study, but the research goes back years; the Chicago Reporter did an exposé on legal and illegal public advertising in both poor and minority neighborhoods back in the 1990s, and its findings were in line with academic research on the subject.

And as Jeff Jarvis recently pointed out on Google’s new social network, Google Plus, social media pays for itself using the same means as old dinosaur media:

Just got hacked off at a France24 producer who wanted me to come on the air to talk about Facebook’s business plan and how it makes its money from advertising using information about us.

How do you make money? I demanded.

Uh pretty much the same way, he said.

This sort of macrotargeting is essentially unavoidable. But for all social networking’s pervasive and increasingly honed reach, the technology that has given us such networks also gives us robust means of avoiding them—taking back our privacy, one piece at a time. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a useful guide to doing so, which ranges from easy solutions that allow a minimum of protection, to more advanced steps that will throw all but the most persistent targeters off your trail. Some of my friends use Tor, a browser/browsing package that essentially covers your internet tracks, and even that has various levels of sophistication.

Of course, using Tor comes at a cost: it’s slower than regular browsing, and its rules for safe browsing eliminate Flash, QuickTime, and other browser plugins, and make even PDFs difficult to access (some days, I’ll open 50-100 PDFs just as part of my job).

Sites like Facebook and Google represent a new frontier for data privacy because so much of the data we put there is explicitly personal, rather than essentially transactional data that companies then have to divine our personalities from. That’s made it more ominous for users unfamiliar with the new technology. But that dynamic has made us face up to data mining that has been just as pervasive and arguably more opaque before the advent of social networks—now that our lives are increasingly lived online, we’re realizing how much of that is lived in databases that have existed for years. The power that those social networks have over us is mirrored by the power we have to interact with them, as we learn to see ourselves as our computers see us.

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