An insight into the research we did for The Digital Human: Harm episode
An insight into the research we did for The Digital Human: Harm episode
Once your smart devices can talk to you, who else are they talking to? Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu wanted to find out – so they outfitted Hill’s apartment with 18 different internet-connected devices and built a special router to track how often they contacted their servers and see what they were reporting back. The results were surprising – and more than a little bit creepy. Learn more about what the data from your smart devices reveals about your sleep schedule, TV binges and even your tooth-brushing habits – and how tech companies could use it to target and profile you. (This talk contains mature language.)
There is an unwitting mole amongst my friends. Without my permission, they passed my personal information to a Facebook app called “This Is Your Digital Life”, which eventually ended up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica, the company famed for using questionable tactics in an effort to influence election campaigns.
Facebook won’t say for certain exactly what happened, nor which friend was involved. Only 270,000 people ever used the This Is Your Digital Life (TIYDL) app, but Facebook estimates that data from 87 million people ended up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica this way.
As a result, Facebook’s boss Mark Zuckerberg spent last week being grilled by the US congress. In the UK, a legal team is gathering claimants to take Facebook to court for mishandling their data. Where did it all go wrong?
Personal information can sound so vague, so let’s be specific. People who used the TIYDL app gave it permission to access their friend’s Facebook public profile page, date of birth, current city and pages they had liked. Facebook also says that “a small number of people” gave permission to share their own timeline and private messages too, meaning that posts or correspondence from their friends would have been scooped up as well.
In May 2008, Facebook announced what initially seemed like a fun, whimsical addition to its platform: People You May Know.
“We built this feature with the intention of helping you connect to more of your friends, especially ones you might not have known were on Facebook,” said the post.
It went on to become one of Facebook’s most important tools for building out its social network, which expanded from 100 million members then to over 2 billion today. While some people must certainly have been grateful to get help connecting with everyone they’ve ever known, other Facebook users hated the feature. They asked how to turn it off. They downloaded a “FB Purity” browser extension to hide it from their view. Some users complained about it to the U.S. federal agency tasked with protecting American consumers, saying it constantly showed them people they didn’t want to friend. Another user told the Federal Trade Commission that Facebook wouldn’t stop suggesting she friend strangers “posed in sexually explicit poses.”
In an investigation last year, we detailed the ways People You May Know, or PYMK, as it’s referred to internally, can prove detrimental to Facebook users. It mines information users don’t have control over to make connections they may not want it to make. The worst example of this we documented is when sex workers are outed to their clients.
When lawmakers recently sent Facebook over 2,000 questions about the social network’s operation, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) raised concerns about PYMK suggesting a psychiatrist’s patients friend one another and asked whether users can opt out of Facebook collecting or using their data for People You May Know, which is another way of asking whether users can turn it off. Facebook responded by suggesting the senator see their answer to a previous question, but the real answer is “no.”
Facebook refuses to let users opt out of PYMK, telling us last year, “An opt out is not something we think people would find useful.” Perhaps now, though, in its time of privacy reckoning, Facebook will reconsider the mandatory nature of this particular feature. It’s about time, because People You May Know has been getting on people’s nerves for over 10 years.
Find out what Dr. Sandra Wachter, Lawyer & Researcher in Data Ethics at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, Research Fellow at The Turing Institute has to say about the Data Privacy, Data Ethics & GDPR.
In real life, in the natural course of conversation, it is not uncommon to talk about a person you may know. You meet someone and say, “I’m from Sarasota,” and they say, “Oh, I have a grandparent in Sarasota,” and they tell you where they live and their name, and you may or may not recognize them.
You might assume Facebook’s friend recommendations would work the same way: You tell the social network who you are, and it tells you who you might know in the online world. But Facebook’s machinery operates on a scale far beyond normal human interactions. And the results of its People You May Know algorithm are anything but obvious. In the months I’ve been writing about PYMK, as Facebook calls it, I’ve heard more than a hundred bewildering anecdotes:
Connections like these seem inexplicable if you assume Facebook only knows what you’ve told it about yourself. They’re less mysterious if you know about the other file Facebook keeps on you—one that you can’t see or control.
Behind the Facebook profile you’ve built for yourself is another one, a shadow profile, built from the inboxes and smartphones of other Facebook users. Contact information you’ve never given the network gets associated with your account, making it easier for Facebook to more completely map your social connections.
Simple as they may look, distribution centres are sophisticated structures. The machinery that moves stuff around is constantly evolving. Their playing field-sized floors have to be exceptionally level, as small unevenness could cause the high fork-lift trucks they use to lean unacceptably at the top. Years of competition have made their structure as spare and economical as can be. Architects such as Chetwoods have to reconcile all this with the wishes of users (who might want something tailored to their needs) and of investors, who will want a structure to be adaptable to future users.It is tempting to say that these buildings make the internet visible, except that their visibility is strictly limited. Sometimes they get into the news when reporters, posing as warehouse workers, bring news of working conditions inside. You can get a glimmer on Google, for example from employee reviews of Primark’s warehouse, which sits like an acropolis on a raised earthwork in Northamptonshire: “they’re treating a people like nothing,” says one in imperfect English; “they beautiful lied on induction how much they cares about worker, don’t believe them.” The buildings, however, remain notably blank, giving almost no clue of their busy inner lives.
Some users and owners are dismissive of press inquiries to a degree unusual in big, public relations-conscious companies. Tesco refused a request to see inside their Dirft base, which was possibly not surprising, but also to answer simple questions, such as: what are its dimensions?
For the writer Carolyn Steel, whose book Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Livesexamines the relationship of society to food, this secrecy is the antithesis of the more public processes by which food once progressed from field to market to kitchen to plate. “The exchange of food used to bring people together,” she says. “Now the process is designed to exclude the human”. But distribution centres manifest the world we have chosen and had chosen for us, in return for efficiency and convenience, in which a product appears in the home by ever more inscrutable magic.
Their scale and growth are a consequence of the fact that all that physicality and volume that the virtual world displaces has to go somewhere. It’s welcome that architects and developers should try to make something of them and to mitigate their impact with woods, ponds and indeed coloured bands. But, short of a dramatic restructuring of the economic, technical and social basis of the modern world, these uncompromising building types will only become more essential to our lives. The contrast between what was previously thought of as natural and urban landscape will only become more stark.
Not a lunchtime lecture, but a very cool listen. Dive deep into the history of the Delphic Oracle.
So you might think that as a rational human being you are able to make sharp predictions about your future. If your answer was in the affirmative I’m afraid you would be wrong. According to American psychologist Daniel Gilbert, ‘The future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope’ – the prospectiscope being the skewed ways we perceive our future (see Gilbert, 2005, for a range of illuminating prospection distortions). As humans, we continuously trip ourselves up with erroneous predictions, at least in the sense that your present self has real problems predicting how your future self will feel.