Recently I came across an article about Facebook, more specifically, that Facebook wants to know why you self-censor, in other words, why you didn’t click Publish on that status update you just wrote, but decided not to publish instead. It turns out Facebook is sending everything you type in the Post textarea box (the one with the “What’s on your mind?” placeholder), to Facebook servers. According to two Facebook scientists quoted in the article: Sauvik Das, PhD student at Carnegie Mellon and summer software engineer intern, and Adam Kramer, a data scientist, they only send back information to Facebook’s servers that indicate whether you self-censored, not the actual text you typed. They wrote an article entitled Self-Censorship on Facebook (PDF, copy here) in which they explain the technicalities.
It turns out this claim that they only send metadata back, not the actual text you type is not entirely true. I wanted to confirm whether they really don’t send what you type to Facebook before you hit Publish, so I fired up Facebook and logged in. I opened up my web inspector and started monitoring requests to/from my browser. When I typed a few letters I noticed that the site makes a GET request to the URL
/ajax/typeahead/search.php with parameters
value=[your search string]&__user=[your Facebook user id] (there are more parameters, but these are the most important for the purposes of this article). The
search.php script probably parses what you typed in order to find contacts that it can then show to you as autocomplete options (for tagging purposes).
Now, the authors of the article actually gathered their data in a slightly different way. They monitored the Post textarea box, and the comment box, and if more than 5 characters were typed in, it would say you self-censored if you didn’t publish that post or comment in the next 10 minutes. So in their methodology, no actual textual content was needed. But it turns out, as my quick research shows above, that your comments and posts actually do get send to Facebook before you click Publish, and even before 5 characters are typed. This is done with a different purpose (searching matches in your contacts for tagging etc.), but clearly this data is received by Facebook. What they subsequently do with it besides providing autocomplete functionality is anyone’s guess. Given that the user ID is actually sent together with the typed in text to the
search.php script may suggest that they associate your profile with the typed in text, but there’s no way to definitively prove that.
When I read through the article, one particular sentence in the introduction stood out to me as bone-chilling:
“(…) Last-minute self-censorship is of particular interest to SNSs [social networking sites] as this filtering can be both helpful and hurtful. Users and their audience could fail to achieve potential social value from not sharing certain content, and the SNS [social networking site] loses value from the lack of content generation. (…)”
“loses value from the lack of content generation.” Let that sink in. When you stop from posting something on Facebook, or re-write it, Facebook considers that a bad thing, as something that removes value from Facebook. The goal of Facebook is to sell detailed profiling information on all of us, even those of us wise enough not to have a Facebook account (through tagging and e-mail friend-finder functionality).
Big Data and Big Brother
And it isn’t just Facebook, it’s basically every social network and ad provider. There’s an entire industry of big data brokers, with companies most of us have never heard of, like Axciom for instance, but there are many others like it, who thrive on selling profiles and associated services. Advertising works best if it is specific, and plays into users’ desires and interests. This is also the reason why, for this to be successful, companies like Facebook need as much information on people as possible, to better target their clients’ ads. And the best way is to provide a free service, like a social network, enticing people to share their lives through this service, and then you can provide really specific targeting to your clients. This is what these companies thrive on.
The bigger problem is that we have no influence on how our data gets used. People claiming they have nothing to hide, and do nothing wrong, forget that they don’t decide on what constitutes criminal behavior, it’s the state making that decision for them. And what will happen when you are suddenly faced with a brutal regime that abuses all the information and data they got on you? Surely we want to prevent this.
This isn’t just a problem in the technology industry, and business, but a problem with governments as well. The NSA and GCHQ, in cooperation with other intelligence agencies around the world are collecting data on all of us, but without providing us, the people, the possibility of appeal, and correction of erroneous data. We have no influence on how this data gets used, who will be seeing it, how it might get interpreted by others, et cetera. The NSA is currently experiencing the same uneasiness as the rest of us, as they have no clue how much or what information Edward Snowden might have taken with him, and how it might be interpreted by others. It’s curious that they now complain about this same problem that the rest of us have been experiencing for years; a problem that NSA partly created by overclassifying information that didn’t need to be kept secret. Of course there is information that needs to be kept secret, but the vast majority of information that now gets rubber stamped with the TOP SECRET marking, is information that is of no threat to national security if it were known to the public, but more likely information that might embarrass top officials.
We need to start implementing proper oversight to the secret surveillance states we are currently subjected to in a myriad of countries around the world, and take back powers that were granted to them, and subsequently abused by them, if we want to continue to live in a free world. For I don’t want to live in a Big Brother state, do you?