A worm’s eye view of the tyranny of digital platforms

Team FactorDaily March 27, 2018 7 min

Two FactorDaily writers look at the Facebook data privacy issue from two very different prisms:

 

Is Facebook daft or what?

By Shadma Shaikh

 

Over the past few days, I have visited the deactivate/delete Facebook page thrice. I read several articles – the ones that walk you through the process of completely wiping your Facebook data and others that suggest deactivating it to test your resolve. Neither helped me make the decision. It was my version of Sophie’s choice. Not because I’m addicted to the platform (Instagram is my daily guilty pleasure) but because as a journalist, shutting down any channel of information is nothing but stupidity. In the past, I’ve got multiple story leads from Facebook. A platform as huge as Facebook is just too big to ignore.

But, when I read @dylanmckaynz’s tweets on Facebook’s data dump showed an inordinate amount of data, I rushed to download my own data from Facebook to see what it had on me. It was a simple process: go to the settings page and request a download of your archive. Facebook asks you to authenticate yourself and sends back a notification saying the dump would be ready for download and sent to you on your email in about 15 minutes.

Facebook account settings page with the data download option highlighted
Facebook account settings page with the data download option highlighted

I forgot about the downloaded data in a zip folder on my computer until a colleague, referring to the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica storm surge, nudged me saying “This is the end of Facebook as we know of it today. It will come out of it but will be quite different.”

I downloaded the zip file of all the data Facebook had collected from my account since I joined it in 2007. There were various folders that contained pictures, videos, messages, all of those contained every little detail of what I had given to Facebook in the past. And as highlighted by @dylanmckaynz in his tweet, the contact details folder not only had contacts information, including phone number and email addresses of all my contacts, it had the complete history of my call logs.

This is problematic for so many reasons. I mean if I am writing a story on Facebook and I talk to sources on my phone who give me information, Facebook could just look into my call logs and find all details of my source. Sure, Facebook’s internal policies don’t permit this but let’s just say that I trust it less today than in the past.

Now, I don’t have the Facebook app on my phone which made me believe I might be slightly better off than those who have the mobile app. But, I did have the Messenger app that had permission to read my contacts until last month. There was a mix up in my text messages and Messenger messages. I could see all my text messages on Messenger and it had sent me a prompt asking to make it the default app for all text communication. I wasn’t comfortable with that and had deleted the app altogether. Facebook stopped recording my call logs after that – my Facebook data dump shows call log history until February 13, 2018.

A colleague looked through his Facebook data dump and found no call logs evidently because he does not use Messenger on his phone. It still doesn’t protect him from friends like me who had the Messenger app record call logs.

Here’s a snapshot of the call log from my data dump that gives outs my colleague’s contact details and details of our calls:

A snapshot of phone call records from the author's Facebook data (details redacted)
A snapshot of phone call records from the author’s Facebook data (details redacted)

In short, it doesn’t matter whether or not you gave permission to Messenger to access your contacts. If someone you know has and that person has Messenger running on his or her phone, be sure the log of your calls will be with Facebook.

The Facebook algorithm heavily relies on the illusion of free choice, clearly. At the core, it is an identity engine. It crunches voluminous data to accurately throw ads and content at users based on preferences, recent engagements, political and religious inclinations, and other social signals. It always did this but it gives me the creeps that it tracks who I spoke with last night, how much time I spent on the call, how frequently do I call a certain number etc.

* * * * *

No, you, the user, are who’s daft!

By Anand Murali

 

If you are not paying for it, you are the product, goes an old adage.

If you didn’t know that Facebook – and I bet, several other platforms – mine your contacts and call records, in addition to location, pictures, videos, audio files and other data, then you are too lazy and are easily fooled by the fine print. In a hurry to install an app, most of us don’t look at the permissions asked for by the developer and click the install button. (Friendly memo: please review all the contracts you have signed – including those in physical form.)

Facebook Messenger's License Agreement on the iOS app store
Facebook Messenger’s License Agreement on the iOS app store

Facebook very clearly states on its privacy page under the subhead ‘Things you do and information you provide,’ that “We collect the content and other information you provide when you use our Services, including when you sign up for an account, create or share, and message or communicate with others.” And, it is important to note here that Facebook doesn’t bury this in legalese.

“Who has the time to go through those lengthy paragraphs with legal jargon in the agreements,” did you ask? In today’s internet world if you care about your privacy you better go through those long, lengthy agreements and make sure you are comfortable with what you are signing up for. Sorry, there are no two ways to this until the law changes to make it easier to trawl through the terms and conditions.

Screenshot of Facebook's Privacy Policy page (highlights added for emphasis)
Screenshot of Facebook’s Privacy Policy page (highlights added for emphasis)

Facebook is not building products to connect you to more friends or notify you about the new gig at your favourite pub. Like several other internet companies out there, it is in the advertisement targetting business and aims to make money. Now, what data it uses and what deals it makes with other companies or political parties is up to it because you, dear user, agreed to everything it wants to do when you signed up for the service.

What can you do in a situation where you don’t want to give up a service and also don’t want to be tracked?

Honestly, not much. In today’s world, the trade-off for the convenience of internet services is personal data and there is virtually no chance that you can keep your data protected. See this telling video:

Even using a dumb phone might not help you in some cases. I have multiple smartphones and dumb phones, but I like a lot of these services and I’m aware that my data is already out there and there is not much I can do. I also try and ensure that I leave as little a digital footprint behind when I use the internet or the app-based services.

As for Facebook, it’s been awhile since I’ve been on it because my feed is filled with stuff that I don’t really care for. I downloaded my Facebook data and it doesn’t seem to have any communication records of mine since 2016 when I moved the app to a phone without a SIM card.

Protecting your digital self or footprint on the internet is not rocket science, to be sure. It has to be a carefully planned digital life that leaves no digital footprint of yours on the internet or anywhere else – there are multiple guides out there on the internet just a click away. The question is whether you are up to getting off the wildly addictive internet platforms.


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.