The Corner

Science & Tech

The Real Deal With the Tech Giants

(Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

A bit of dialogue from the old television series Person of Interest, where a reclusive billionaire programmer and a former CIA agent use a giant supercomputer to predict crimes and save people:

FINCH: Hester’s living off the grid. No photos online and nothing on the social networking sites.

REESE: I’ve never understood why people put all their information on those sites. Used to make our job a lot easier in the C.I.A.

FINCH: Of course, that’s why I created them.

REESE: You’re telling me you invented online social networking, Finch?

FINCH: The Machine needed more information. People’s social graph, their associations. The government have been trying to figure it out for years. Turns out most people were happy to volunteer it. Business wound up being quite profitable, too. Unfortunately, Jordan Hester seems to be more cautious than most, but I was able to run a credit check.

If you’re really disturbed by Cambridge Analytica and what campaigns or corporations can do with the information about you on social media . . . maybe it’s time to get off of social media. Even if Facebook institutes new rules about the sale of data or access to users’ personal data, there’s little reason to think that the company and its clients will forever resist the temptation to keep their hands out of the cookie jar. Information about you and access to your eyeballs are Facebook’s primary products. (I did not make up the “floating sticky eyeballs” jargon from The Weed Agency. People actually talked like this during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.)

Despite my skepticism that Cambridge Analytica really figured out anything qualitatively different from previous targeted messaging, it is fair to ask if the general public understood the terms of the agreements when they started using these social-networking sites or other high-tech web-based services.

“Hi, I’m Facebook, and I’ll let you keep track of long-lost friends and relatives, let you see who got fat from your high school class, and peruse vacation pictures, baby pictures, and all kinds of information from everyone you’ve ever known. Of course, all the data you voluntary put on our site, and all of the information we gather about you, can be sold to anyone we want.”

“Hi, I’m Twitter, and I’ll give you near-instantaneous communication with almost any other user — basically free texting with anyone online — and let you reach a nearly-unlimited audience. In exchange, I’ll allow any lunatic in the world send any kind of message to you, including profane, hateful, threatening, and generally unhinged; groups of lunatics may get together to ensure you’re constantly receiving vile insults and menaces for long stretches of time.”

“Hi, I’m Google, I’m willing to provide an email system that’s easily accessible through any web browser and way better than Hotmail. Of course, in exchange, we get access to scan all of those emails, and to track everything you search for on our site.”

“Hi, I’m YouTube, and I’ll allow you to show videos to anyone in the world. In exchange, we’ll provide a comments section underneath the video that will obliterate your faith in humanity.”

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