Thursday, January 30, 2020

The spy without

Michael - Thursday

Tuesday was Data Privacy Day, and the Washington Post celebrated it by publishing an article titled “Facebook will now show you exactly how it stalks you — even when you’re not using Facebook.” It’s a well-written, useful article, and I advise anyone concerned about data privacy to take a look at it. What it is not, is surprising. In fact, if the article had claimed that Facebook and the other tech giants listened in to your conversations, I still wouldn’t have been surprised. My philosophy is that if you don’t want something to be public, don’t put it on the internet. Once you do that, there is always a way—legal or illegal—for someone to discover it.

For that reason, I haven’t resorted to any of the password vault software that generate passwords for all your internet accounts for you. However, I’m beginning to weaken. As the password requirements become more and more challenging—must have special characters, may not have special characters, must reach a certain level of complexity that none of my usual passwords do, etc. etc.—I have to resort to writing them on a piece of paper. (You remember? The flat, thin, white stuff?) However, I write them in code. Then I have to remember the codes. And where I put the piece of paper. I think that a password vault that takes care of all the passwords I don’t care too much about and simply remembering the few others may be the answer.

The WP article is about a new tool that Facebook offers called “Off-Facebook Activity.” The new tool allows you to discover what information Facebook is gathering from your actions, not only from its associates, Messenger and Instagram, but also in lots of other ways from lots of other internet sources. And while it won’t allow you to actually stop the collection of such information, it will allow you to prevent it being used so that advertisers can target their advertisements to you. However, the data is still there. Presumably, it’s to be used to obtain statistical information of value to…the advertisers. Neither will it reduce the number of adverts you receive. (You have to pay websites for that privilege.) So let’s understand the gain here. If we turn off this advert targeting, what we get is more random adverts. Is there not actually some benefit in at least getting adverts that you might possibly find interesting?

As you probably know, the European Union has made some efforts to prevent people being flooded with spam-like emails, and I support that strongly. You now have to explicitly sign up to receive newsletters and the like, and the default option is that you do not receive the marketing material. The penalties for violations can be severe. Like most authors, we've changed our newsletter so that it only goes out to people who explicitly asked for it. That cost us quite a few subscribers, but presumably the ones we have left actually have some interest in our books, and the others don’t have more emails to delete without opening. Good for both groups.

Sometimes data collection behaviours of websites can be uncanny. One lunchtime in Cape Town, Stan and I headed off to a restaurant he likes. We asked Google for the address, which it promptly gave to us. When we arrived, we discovered that the restaurant was closed. As soon as I returned to Google, it immediately offered restaurants near to the closed one, even though we'd never turned on the GPS option. How did it know where we were? Well, of course it can tell that from where the signal is being picked up by the cell phone towers. (Yes, I believe Google would have access to that information.) Or did it know the restaurant was closed and so we would be searching for another? Modern AI does that easily. Or maybe it was simply the most probable thing we would want after searching for the address of a restaurant that was in that part of town.

So Big Brother is watching us. And it’s not the people in Washington or London or name your favourite capital city, but Big Tech. (Of course, those other people are also watching us by using the same and other technologies. And they don’t play by rules.)

I think it’s not good, but I have to admit that it’s worth it. How many of us could live without Google let alone the internet as a whole? But how concerned should we actually be about the information we freely give away?

I don’t know the answer. What do you think? Probably Google and Facebook already know the answer to that, but I’m not smart enough to get them to tell me.


  1. And how much of the danger is down to our own stupidity. Like the seemingly random quizzes that entails giving your mum's maiden name, the name of your first pet... they may as well ask for your password and have done with it....

    1. Absolutely! And the canny password checkers ask you those questions first, so that they can reject the answers as passwords!

  2. It's an old-person problem. Young people are growing up in this environment, and their response is, "So what?" The whole concept of privacy is changing fast and as we blow away in the wind, so will the old concept of what privacy means. Sigh. Getting old is NOT for the weak of heart...

    1. I think you are absolute right, Everett. Young people don't understand the question...

  3. A half dozen years ago on Mykonos I met a senior exec at one of the big credit card companies, and like many tend to do on Mykonos, he talked quite a bit very late at night in a bar. He/she said that the technology existed where after you bought something in a shop--say a shirt--as you walked past another shop a voice could call out to you, "Hey Jeff, we've got a great tie to go with that shirt." She/he said the only reason they weren't using that technology was because it would freak out the public.

    Frankly, it seems to me that no longer is a consideration and soon we'll be hearing voices.