… or WhatsApp or Instagram …
I don’t use these programs because they leak information about who your contacts are, whom you talk with, when, and how often, to invisible, unaccountable third parties.
Who are these third parties?
Facebook lists nine companies which comprise the Facebook family:
- WhatsApp: share with Facebook your contacts and how much you interact with them.
- Instagram LLC: share pictures of people and things of interest to you, your location.
- Moves: share with Facebook an activity diary of your daily life.
- Onavo: share with Facebook the apps you’re using and how much data you’re using on them (possibly more).
- Facebook Payments, Inc.: You think this stuff is free? You’re the product.
- Oculus: virtual reality goggles.
- Atlas: measure and track purchasing behavior linked to advertising, target advertising.
- Masquerade: cross web-site tracking technology.
- CrowdTangle: monitor social media.
The first two are probably familiar. The next two, maybe you’re foolish enough to use them. Ever heard of Atlas, Masquerade and CrowdTangle? CrowdTangle is especially interesting. Know what they do? I’ve added summaries to give you a clue.
Facebook makes a big deal of your “privacy controls.” You can change all sorts of settings about who “sees” your posts. This is smoke and mirrors. The fact is that all of the above collect, collate, merge, and sell access to everything you do on Facebook and elsewhere on the internet. Your activity is available privately or by subscription, without accountability to you, for proprietary purposes.
Organizations that collect, collate, monitor, and enhance this data aren’t the true darknet, because they operate under a public legal framework where they nevertheless hide. What could we call them? Let’s call them the “datalords”.
When you assent to Facebook terms, or WhatsApp, or Instagram, or … you assent to all of the above.
How you leak data to the datalords
When I share my phone number into your contact list, because you use WhatsApp, the fact that we are somehow socially connected goes to the datalords. The fact that I myself don’t use WhatsApp doesn’t matter. There is still a data block for me and it just got connected to yours.
How metadata works
Here is an example of how metadata works and how you leak it. I spend a lot of time abroad, so I have phone numbers in two countries. One day I made the mistake of sharing my entire contact information with a WhatsApp user (which is just about anybody). Both of my phone numbers went into their address book.
Up until that point, my phone number in one country and the one in another were completely separate data blocks in the store of the datalords. However, when next they sucked-up the contacts of my friend, the two numbers were related and a connection made between the two, up to now separate data blocks. The connection says, “these are likely the same person.” After all, they are! And now the datalords can connect every bit of metadata about one with the other. They’ve enhanced their whole world picture about who’s who connected with whom.
And the metadata doesn’t end there. My phone number is associated with my credit card numbers. Whenever I make a purchase using the credit card, the purchase data gets tagged on. That includes the location of the purchase, amount, company, service, sometimes itemized products purchased.
By matching data items across data blocks – phone number to phone number, credit card number to credit card number – all of the additional data items in those blocks can be associated with a single identity and form an ever growing and more detailed picture of that identity.
Why this makes me uneasy
As a moral, law abiding citizen who works hard, pays his taxes and stays out of trouble, why should I care?
In early 2017 I wrote a response to an Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) call to technology companies, asking them to shore-up their security practices. (EFF had bought a full page advertisement in the January, 2017 issue of Wired magazine.)
The response talks about the data mine, machine learning, and records of government abuses targeted against citizens. It asserts,
“The greatest danger of these databases is that we are only one rogue agent, or rogue agency, or rogue government away from having our data turned against us. In a “national security emergency,” or under some other cover, our government could claim broad, sweeping access to social network, advertising, and purchase behavior databases for the purpose of identifying and prosecuting citizens they deem threatening.”
That’s why. Because, while ideas can’t be squashed, individuals who hold them can be.
There aren’t really any good, secure alternatives to Facebook that I know of. I’d like to know. But really, I don’t find it necessary to share a selfie in front of the leaning tower of Pisa with everyone I know or have been acquainted with.
For messaging, including phone calls and picture sharing with individuals whom I’m truly close to, I use Signal messenger. Signal is an angel funded small team that continually improves the function of the app. The application provides one of the few easy, practical ways to stay in touch without leaking information to the datalords. I like it.