Currently, everyone seems to be discussing whether or not elections can be manipulated through Facebook. Good morning sheeple! Who would have thought that sharing personal information with an ad network would allow marketeers to contact and lull swing voters? Let’s consider that to be a wake up call (elections don’t matter anyway, you can only choose the color of the bullshit you will be getting), the real, everyday danger of Facebook is yet to come.
What makes a social network successful?
In a nutshell, the job of a social network is to connect people with other people they want or at least need to communicate with. Facebook excels at this task. Once you sign up, you are presented with a list of people you either know or might find interesting. This is possible since Facebook already collects data about everyone (without consent!), long before they even apply for an account.
Thanks everyone, who uploads their address book, puts a like button on their website and tags people in photos!
Speaking of people and pictures. Let’s say you build this giant data collection machine. Where everyone is tricked into putting their life on file by through trojaned services. Let’s further say that the original plan to convert that data into cash was target advertising, but users are accepting ads less and marketeers loose faith in effectiveness of target advertising more and more. What other things can you do to earn money from your giant pile of files?
Pretty much every retail store and fastfood restaurant has surveillance cameras these days. Supposedly, to increase security. In reality, however, actually paying someone to watch the monitors is, in most cases, just expense with no return of investment, so it only adds to the cost of shoplifting.
Now imagine Facebook beyond online advertising. Imagine them reaching out to the large retail chains and telling them: “you got the surveillance cameras, but you don’t have the manpower to properly screen the footage. Even if, you you’d also need to post security guards at the doors to catch the thieves before they leave the premises. We have a file, with pictures, on pretty much anyone on the planet. Just upload your surveillance feed to our servers. We will do facial recognition and give you the name and address of all shoplifters. Even better, we will automatically sync the data. If one of your stores bans a person, that person will automatically raise an alarm when trying to enter any of your stores!”
Let’s take a moment to let that sink in. Facebook, a private organization, has the potential for becoming the keeper of criminal records. Their whole business model is build entirely on grabbing (and never truly letting go of) any piece of data they can get and modelling a virtual person on whatever the data says is plausible. There is no way to appeal, nothing is ever (truly) forgotten.
From a business owner’s and an honest customer’s perspective, banning a shoplifter from ever (re)entering a store is desirable. But what’s the social consequence? Consider a 15 year old girl getting caught for stealing a lipstick from her local Walmart. Subsequently, she’s fined and banned from ever entering that store (and every other branch) again. Her 10 bucks transgression earns her a social stigma as well as the inability to buy groceries on her own. Serves her right, right? Right! Punishment for life! Fire and brimstone! That’s how they will learn! And, by the way, that’s also how you create real criminals! The girl becomes, par ordre du mufti, an outcast with whom shops no longer do business and people no longer want to associate. What do outcasts do for a living? Do we really want to build more prisons to deal with the consequences of lives spiralling down because of one dumb mistake? Let’s add spin to the story. What if the 15 year old girl just got misidentified? Maybe the facial recognition algorithm was flawed, maybe it worked with the wrong data, a fake profile perhaps? Maybe there wasn’t any shoplifting to begin with, but the girl’s ex boyfriend, an employee at the shop, didn’t have any nude pics of her to post as revenge porn, so instead he tagged her as a thief. Congratulations, an innocent life ruined with the click of a button!
Scientia potentia est (“knowledge is power”). What I know of you gives me power over you. The real danger of Facebook is that we constantly tell the network something about ourselves and about our peers as well. Facebook listens to all of it on the (immoral) premise that one day, once the right buyer comes along, the knowledge can be converted into cash. Ruined lives are of no concern. After all, Facebook only sees itself only as a service provider. It doesn’t tell people how to act on the insight it gives and is therefore not responsible for the any consequences that may arise.
When we feed data into the network, we should not ask, “what’s the harm?”, we should assume there will be harm and the only way to prevent harm is to not feed the network at all.