The social way to gather, survey and “process” personal data

In today’s virtual world information is the name of the game. We’ve seen data centers across the globe processing yottabytes of information on people. Technology connecting and interfacing closer with reality. Legislation easing the path to cleave away personal information without you knowing.

I know. It’s as if I’m dreaming up some Orwellian setting to spook you or grab your attention. Well, I’m not. Data may be virtual, but it operates in tandem with a real-world space. However, even with all these things seemingly happening in the periphery, there is an easier way to tango in the information game. Ready? Just start a social networking site that’s free to join, proliferates like no tomorrow, collects as much personal data as possible, and…

Sound familiar? Chances are you’re signed up too. If you haven’t guessed it, I’m talking about the social networking site Facebook. You may be thinking to yourself “well everyone has it and I log on everyday, what’s the big deal?” In some ways, depending on your attitude and how you’re using Facebook, it may not be a big deal. However, it is a fact that the profile data users submit to facebook (i.e. photos, demographics, interests, etc.) gets taken and processed from somewhere to someone. This begs the question: what do they get, how do they get it, and where does it go?

Who are they? They are not necessarily just facebook on the receiving end. However it can be tricky business trying to understand they without knowing what you give them. Instead of beating into you the answers, it is easier to understand who they are by knowing the nature of the relationship between you and what you give Facebook (knowingly or not), then how this briely develops into a case for who they are.

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They know where you are

Facebook uses two main methods of figuring out where you are. Not only does this include where you’ve physically been, but also virtually where you’re surfing the web. It accomplishes this primarily by holding onto metadata, using face recognition, and planting cookies in your web browser.

Metadata is an ambiguous term tossed around in the information game. However, in Facebook’s case, the most supple source of metadata it can take is right out of your own photos. What does this metadata disclose? Things like your physical geo-location. Although Facebook does not publicly display or explicitly “use” geo-locations from user images, that doesn’t mean it isn’t taken or stored. In fact, one of Facebook’s owned companies Instagram publicly and explicitly uses images’ metadata revealing things such as the exact location an image was taken.

Face recognition software is another avenue Facebook can use to figure out where you are. According to enterprise performance expert, Bernard Marr, Facebook could figure out where you are indirectly by using your friends’ photos. When photos are uploaded, Facebook prompts users to make “tag suggestions,” identifying friends through their faces. So if your friend uploads a photo of you at the beach, Facebook recognizes a face, and your friend suggests that face is yours, Facebook now knows you were at the beach.

Whether or not Facebook really uses image metadata, or face recognition software to compile geographical data about users can be a debatable topic in terms of how they use it. That they have this information on users is not. A final way Facebook collects data about where you go is through cookies. For Facebook, we can think of cookies as almost like tracking bugs planted in your browser. Whether you’re logged in or not, if you go to any website with a Facebook plugin, app, or like, information about where you are on the web is documented and sent to Facebook. In fact, not only do these cookies inform Facebook where you are virtually, but detail when and where you geographically are.

They know what you like

Sure, clicking a like or two seems harmless. It’s as easy as pressing 1-2-I “like” Justin Bieber (for the record, I don’t). However what can be inferred from a user’s likes? A lot of things! According to a an article featured in the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), software can be used to infer things like your intelligence, sexual orientation, even your private views on politics. If we stretch this scenario further, who is to say an entire narrative about you can’t be made solely from your likes?

Well, this scenario doesn’t even have to be hypothetically stretched. The EFF also featured in their article a study done by the University of Cambridge, where participants were asked to complete a handful of Facebook pages, and the results were fed into computer algorithms. Turns out fairly accurate results were predicted just from Facebook likes! This included high predicative rates for gender (95%) and ethnicity (93%). It could even classify your personality.

You are the product, they are the consumer

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With all this personal information flowing through Facebook, and the many ways it is directly and indirectly accessed and surveyed, where does the data flow? Does Facebook hold onto all of it for you never to see the light of day? Well, in the information world of trade data does not come free. They are not letting you off the hook easily with a free social service. They work with Facebook and make Facebook profits. They are sometimes called data brokers.

Data brokers, in short, are companies that deal in the online business of internet data trade-that is, your personal information. These include Acxiom, Epsilon, Datalogix, and BlueKai. They sometimes operate by producing advertisements for Facebook’s pages. Facebook then relays aggregate reports detailing personal parameters (age, gender, how many clicks, etc.) about you to the data broker. This process of communication between the data broker and Facebook’s advertising accelerates with activity, and sometimes you may even see an advertisement geared towards something so familiar it might have even happened in real life!

But that’s not all! Epsilon and Acxiom have been known to operate by extracting publicly available data within the limitations of Facebook’s privacy policies, even though these limitations in-themselves are only vaguely described officially by Facebook. Acxiom has openly even stated it processes social network information across databases compiling customer profiles! Whereas, Epsilon has claimed it does not connect social network information across their databases, but “provide companies with analytics insights” and “help them better understand and interact with their customers.” Personally that sounds like it has a tone of professionalism trying to hide some things under the rug of ambiguity.

In the end companies that deal in data trade will run through hoops, take advantage of Facebook, and always have you, their product, in mind when processing information. They have even worked with government agencies before. Facebook has recently announced a message claiming they are beginning to provide users methods of controlling personal data flow with advertising companies. However, we have yet to see their developed Data Access Tools functionally performing. We can only wait and see if Facebook really does provide their consumer a way out of being a product.

What can I do right now?

There are many things you can do to resist or slow down Facebook, and associated data brokers from ultimately collecting and processing your personal data. Here are a few tips to help get you started:

  • Scrub the metadata off your photos before uploading
  • Erase your browser’s cookies or use only one browser just for Facebook
  • Install DoNotTrackMe into your browser
  • Don’t give Facebook real information about you
  • Remove yourself from tagged photos
  • Change change change your privacy settings after each Facebook update
  • Join a safe and private social networking website that won’t sell your information
  • And for you tech-savvies out there: do not bother with Tor, I’ve tried. Facebook simply deactivates your account for connecting with an “unknown device”

Until then

Cool off, have a laugh, and enjoy this video. This isn’t exactly directly related to what I’m talking about, but it may fondle your thoughts on how you use Facebook.

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