Let’s be honest; how many of you have ever actually completely read terms and conditions from start to finish before ‘accepting’ them? No one? Good, me neither! Who has the time or inclination to read through several hundred pages of tiny font legal jargon that you probably won’t remember or understand?!
And anyway, has anything bad ever happened when you accepted without reading the fine print? I’ve never had anything bad happen by accepting without reading terms and conditions, and I suspect most people are the same. [Wait, except for that one time a fashion brand duped me into agreeing to hand over $50.00 for store credit automatically each month… I probably should have read those terms and conditions all the way through].
There are two sides to this article; firstly, no, Facebook is not spying on you; they don’t have the means or interest to listen in to your conversations. However secondly, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission [ACCC] has flagged Facebook and other digital media platforms for investigation. They want to know the specific of how and why information and personal data is collected and shared. In a world of increasing media infiltration and expanding reach of the internet into each of our lives [Amazon Alexa and Google Home anyone?!] it is important to know what you are signing up for on digital platforms, and how much of what you post is actually recorded.
I used to be a flight attendant for a major Australian airline, and on a flight from Brisbane to Mackay [BNE-MKY for airside savvy readers] my crew and I were making plans to get active while on our layover and exercise as a group. Once landed, having sent an obligatory Snap to everyone I knew [#geofilter #snapchat #cabincrewlife], scrolled through Instagram, and opened Facebook, I noticed an ad on my feed for a boot camp in Mackay. HOLD. THE. PHONE.
Conspiracy theories have bounced around the internet for years, with many people experiencing the same thing – discussing a topic only to then have it pop up on Facebook as an ad. While this phenomena may be unsettling, Facebook simply doesn’t have the capability or inclination to listen in to what users might be saying. As Antonio Garcia Martinez for Wired eloquently explains, Facebook doesn’t need to listen in to target you; it has more than enough information on you already:
“Not every spookily accurate ad you see is a pure figment of your cognitive biases. Remember, Facebook can find you on whatever device you’ve ever checked Facebook on,”.
Facebook Doesn’t Care… Much
Having never read the terms and conditions, and really not paying attention to ‘policy updates’, I was pretty surprised to learn that Facebook tracks “device locations, including specific geographic locations, such as through GPS, Bluetooth or WiFi signals,”. It was also surprising to learn that Facebook has no fewer than 70 categories of information for its users, and shares this information not only with The Facebook Companies comprised of eight media companies including Instagram and WhatsApp, but with third parties who use Facebook Services as well.
This all ties together if, for example, you decide to shop for sunglasses on your work computer – where you have signed into your Facebook account at some stage, or even used your Facebook login to access a secondary website – you will start to see ads for sunglasses pop up on your mobile News Feed, and visa versa.
…Or if you start searching for dieting tips, healthy recipes, and at-home workouts, then let Facebook know your location at all times, you will notice pop-up ads for boot camps in Mackay.
So, while it is comforting to know Facebook isn’t listening in to my conversations, it is dizzying to think about how many separate companies have access to [what I thought was] private or irrelevant information, and further, how they use this information to target me as a consumer.
Is this a bad thing really?
Let’s talk real-world. On Friday [March 16th, 2018], American company Cambridge Analytica was suspended from Facebook pending investigation of data misuse. Breakdown:
- In 2015, US professor Alexsandr Kogan created an app to survey paid respondents under the guide of psychology research
- 320,000 facebook users agreed to the terms and conditions, and were paid to participate
- Data was collected from over 50 million Facebook profiles via open privacy settings
- Kogan passed this data to third party Cambridge Analytica
- An algorithm was created for targeted political campaigning.
- Facebook demanded all data be destroyed as it was now being used for commercial gain, not academic enquiry
- March 2018, reports surface not all data was destroyed
- Facebook suspends Kogan and Cambridge Analytica pending investigation.
Key point: Facebook maintains that the 150-fold increase in profiles accessed was not a breach as all data was collected correctly and all 320,000 survey participants agreed to the terms and conditions.
It is this type of data collection, among many other issues, is what concerns the ACCC. Last month, the ACCC formally launched an enquiry into digital media platforms including Google and Facebook. The report will investigate how confidential information is gathered and treated, choice in the digital landscape; related to news media, advertising and content distribution, and long-term implications for Australia’s high media use. Publication is set down for June 2018.
ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said, “I don’t think consumers should think of Facebook or Google as free, there is nothing free in this world. So if someone is providing you something for free you need to think ‘how is that so?’”. The enquiry will also investigate if the information that companies like Facebook and Google have at their disposal, creates an unbalanced or even unfair landscape for Australian marketing and publishing. Access to 50 million profiles anyone?
Studies like this one are not uncommon; in 2012 Turkish scholars conducted a similar if smaller study of Facebook privacy that concluded:
“The only way to be aware of the risks and threats of Facebook… is to be a careful user changing the default settings or simply not to have a Facebook account,”.
Read the T’s and C’s Guys
In a globalised world, there are fewer and fewer excuses for engaged consumers to skip over the fine print of online services. While Facebook is very careful to note they do not release any information that could personally identify you, they put you into categories and boxes that mean more to ad agencies than they ever will to you. These boxes and categories along with posts, pictures, and locations add up to an alarmingly widespread online presence that users really have quite limited control over.
While research suggests that using Facebook has become normalised, the majority of users are like me: “yep, I totally understand privacy settings and monitor what I post online…not”, never really comprehending the danger until something bad happens to you. Is it worth the risk?
While I am no longer concerned about Facebook listening to my every word, I will wait for the ACCC report, and in the meantime go back through my account settings to determine just how much information I am happy to share.