Nick's Notes

Privacy and Control

It will come as no surprise to the people who read this blog regularly that I have been exercised by the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica story still doing the rounds on the mainstream news programmes.

My preference for privacy has led to me leading a near Google-free existence , preferring to use DuckDuckGo or IXQuick as my primary search engines as neither track you. My preference for Apple products partly stems from Tim Cook’s public pronouncements on the subject of privacy and the clear focus on end-user experience even though Apple’s insane annual refresh cycle is, at present, challenging the once legendary quality that was summed up by “it just works”. But don’t get me started on that.

As is said of free services online “If you’re not paying, you’re the product” . I have no wish to be a product, nor particularly to be closely targeted by advertisers, although there is a difference between being a legitimate target for advertising and my data being the product. CIO Connect wrote a three part Point of View around 5 years ago describing how it would be possible and desirable for individuals to take back control of their information and the opportunity to do that which arises through the gradual “appification” of systems, but there is no evidence of this happening. Perhaps it is not surprising, as in a well reported study people were willing to sign up to an EULA which required them to give up their firstborn in return for free use of the software. Attention to detail is not a strong trait.

Facebook has form, of course. It could be argued that their business model is to push the boundaries of using their user’s data until someone complains. They then apologise, say it was inadvertent, and close down that particular avenue of data exploitation in favour of a new one, and the cycle continues.

For me the interesting part of this story relates to political persuasion. This happens in the UK too – the Labour party machine being much more adept at it than the Conservatives, certainly at the last election. By closely targeting voters (which needs a lot of data on their preferences and interests) a simple message can be sent out saying vote for us because we’ll handle whatever it is. Nobody reads manifestos, and “what’s in it for me” drives most voting intentions, as it always has. So this is seen as being very effective for bringing swing voters on side.

Where people seem to be up in arms about the latest Facebook problems is that this technique is claimed to have led to the election of Donald Trump. There is some debate about the effectiveness of such techniques though, with some researchers suggesting that personality data doesn’t increase the probability of engagement even though the message is highly targeted.

Unless the so called “nudge” messages were carrying deliberate untruths, then getting the message out to potential supporters is exactly what a political party machine is supposed to do. That those messages were different to different people is not a problem for me. After all a printed manifesto carries many different promises.

Where I become slightly less relaxed is that I would prefer to believe people make up their mind who to vote for on the basis of the set of policies espoused by a candidate or party rather than on just one single issue. But perhaps I’m being naive or showing my age. And you can avoid much of this targeting by minimising the sharing of your data by selecting the most rigorous privacy settings in each app, or not using those you don’t trust.

In the end people need to make an informed choice. Just like who they vote for, transparency of which app they use and what happens to their data is an important choice which people don’t always fully engage with. Perhaps GDPR will make things better. I’m not holding my breath.

1. This is actually impossible as Google’s tentacles are everywhere. For example, IXQuick uses Google search but through a proxy so searches cannot be traced back to the originator. Equally they will have data on me from contacts I have who do use their services.
2. A brief search dates this remark to well before the internet. It is reported as being by Richard Serra in relation to commercial television channels in 1973.

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