Here we go again. Facebook critics are up in arms, outraged over the idea that their personal information might have been mishandled either by the U.K. based company Cambridge Analytica, by Facebook or both.
It’s as if people are surprised that digital information is shared or outright sold to other companies. Since no one pays to join Facebook how do you think its founder Mark Zuckerberg, 33, became a multibillionaire? His company has always exploited their users’ likes, dislikes, opinions, photos and videos. Whatever you do on Facebook Team Zuckerberg is watching, analyzing your every move and figuring out ways to monetize the information.
This column is not about absolving Facebook of wrongdoing. If executives broke laws by divulging private user information they should pay the price. If it is determined that they violated their fiduciary responsibilities causing Facebook stock to plummet, as one lawsuit now claims, well, maybe the justice system will find stockholders deserve some relief.
In just one recent week Facebook was slapped with no fewer than four federally filed lawsuits stemming from this latest indignation over its corporate policies and practices. The Federal Trade Commission has opened an investigation into whether Facebook violated a past agreement regulating what user information the company can and cannot share. Did Facebook’s dealings with Cambridge Analytica break that agreement? Congress wants to question Zuckerberg about this and he’ll likely appear in early April.
Maybe then we’ll learn if this is a really big deal or whether its another one of those breathless hyperdriven media moments with no real “there” there.
In the meantime, if you are among those worried about privacy, if you don’t want others to know what sites you have visited, what kind of comments you leave, where you live or what your children look like — don’t post it on Facebook! Same goes for Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit and all social networking sites. Each of them has ingenious ways to capture your activity and the analytical information they glean is like gold in the digital world.
Now, while we’re on the topic of privacy, let’s pause and put into perspective what that word means in today’s universe. It is safe to say that once you step out of your home there is really no such thing as privacy anymore. Your neighbors and local shopkeepers have surveillance cameras. More are perched on top of traffic signals watching you as you drive to work. When you pass by an ATM your picture is snapped and stored. Your employer may have cameras inside your workplace. And there are those ubiquitous cell phone cameras that so often capture public action.
But that’s not all. Did you realize that pictures of your face are likely being stored in all sorts of locations?
The makers of Smartphones offer facial recognition software that can unlock the phone when the owner looks at it. Some high-end hotels and stores use entryway cameras outfitted with facial recognition technology to identify wealthy clients and celebrities so they can be offered extra attention. Some department stores use the technology to monitor how customers react to in-store displays. Airlines are toying with the idea of ditching boarding passes and using facial scanners to identify passengers. What if these companies figured out a way to sell a photo of your face? Would that be okay with you?
In addition, law enforcement departments across the country have also adopted facial recognition technology and there is no way for you to know whether your photo is on file.
A 2017 report from the Georgetown Law Center of Privacy and Technology reveals that the FBI now has access to photographs of about half the U.S. adult population. That’s about 117 million Americans and 80% of the people in the photos do not have a criminal record. Their likeness is stored for the sole reason that they have some form of government photo ID, like a driver’s license. The Bureau collects those photographs.
“The FBI have basically enrolled half of all adults in a massive virtual line-up,” said Alvaro Bedoya, co-author of the Law Center report. “Innocent people don’t belong in criminal databases.”
Bedoya calls it “dangerous territory” especially since people with darker skin are more often misidentified. Yet I don’t recall nearly the public outcry that the latest Facebook revelations have unleashed.
In this era when we are patted down at airports and allow our luggage to be searched without a warrant we turn to social media and voluntarily surrender our private information, photos and videos. Then we holler about the loss of privacy?
In Europe, there are proposals to declare all biometric data, including “faceprints,” belong to the owner and therefore require permission to be used. But here in America only the states of Texas and Illinois have laws regulating facial recognition. I’m afraid trying to stop this runaway lack-of-privacy train now is about as likely as getting people to abandon using Facebook.