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Reining in Big Data’s Robber Barons

12 April 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

The use of Facebook by Cambridge Analytica to gather data on tens of millions of users is just one of the troubling things to have come to light about Facebook and its effect on social and political life. Yet that story is also, in some respects, a distraction from the bigger issues that stem from the Internet giants’ practices: Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other tech giants have constructed the most extensive and intrusive surveillance apparatus the world has ever seen. And we are the target.

Surveillance capitalism—so named in 2015 by the Harvard academic Shoshana Zuboff—is the business model of the Internet. Built on techniques of information capture and behavior modification, surveillance capitalism came into being when Google’s engineers realized that by tracking what users were typing into their search engine, they could learn to predict what those users wanted. Once they could anticipate what users wanted, they could target them with ads designed to influence those users’ behavior in ways that maximized Google’s revenue.

These days, virtually every aspect of day-to-day life is fed into corporate databases and used to predict and influence all kinds of behavior. Surveillance corporations don’t just respond to consumer wants; they also shape and drive those wants toward their own ends. Usually, that means a click on an advertisement, a visit to a website, or, ultimately, a purchase. To do this, they attempt to take advantage of known shortcuts and biases in human decision-making, called “heuristics.” Often, this means presenting links and other content in such a way as to generate interest, but sometimes, as in the case of so-called “dark patterns”—misselling techniques and tricks to game attention or gain private data—it involves a choice architecture that is patently deceptive.

Continual experimentation helps them refine their ads and prompts. As of 2014, Google, for example, undertook roughly 10,000 experiments per year in its search and ads business, with around 1,000 running at any one time.

. . . .

As a result, if you use a web browser or an app, you are almost certainly the unwitting subject of dozens of psychological experiments that seek to profile your habits and vulnerabilities for the benefit of corporations, every time you use the Internet.

. . . .

One 2013 study by Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre showed that, without having any factual information about you, analysis of what you’ve “liked” on Facebook can accurately predict your sexual orientation, your ethnicity, your happiness, your political and religious views, whether your parents are separated, and whether you use drugs. A follow-up study in 2015 found that by analyzing your likes, a computer can be a better judge of your personality traits—such as how artistic, shy, or cooperative you are—than your friends and family are.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

PG has two views on this subject that may conflict with each other.

A. Personalization can help make the internet a much better source of information for a user than it would be without personalization. Google can surface sources that interest PG more effectively because it has adapted to PG’s interests based on his prior searches.

B. The same technology that permits personalization can be used to provide some protection for personal information about a user. If you use the Chrome browser, if you right-click on a link, choosing Incognito Mode will provide you with some (not perfect) protection against third-party tracking. Firefox has a similar setting called Private Browsing.

C. Chrome Privacy Tools

If you are using Chrome, go to chrome://settings/privacy, you can disable a variety of services that can provide means of tracking you as you use your Chrome browser. For an explanation of these settings, you can go here.

If you go to https://support.google.com/chrome/answer/2392709#types, you can see an overview of the data Google collects via Chrome that you can delete and information about how you go about deleting this data.

Google collects lots of information about users through their search activities. DuckDuckGo provides a more private search engine.

D. Third-Party Privacy Information:

Wikipedia has a short entry on Anonymous Browsing at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anonymous_web_browsing together with links to other resources.

PC Magazine has a recent (January, 2018) article about How to Stay Anonymous Online https://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2363302,00.asp

Tech Radar has a recent (February, 2018) article about The best free privacy software 2018: top tools for anonymous browsing https://www.techradar.com/news/best-free-privacy-software

The Tech Radar article mentions the Tor browser which is a more secure alternative to Chrome, Firefox, Safari and/or Edge browsers. You can download Tor at no cost  at https://www.torproject.org/

You may find that Tor lacks some convenience features available on Chrome, Firefox, etc. Nothing says you can only install a single browser on your computer or that you must use only a single browser. If you mentally create a low-danger list of websites, you can use your regular browser for those. For high-danger or super-secret online work, you can fire up Tor.

You can even take a Paranoid Personality Quiz – https://psychcentral.com/quizzes/paranoid-quiz/ – and use a browser that’s compatible with your score.

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23 Comments to “Reining in Big Data’s Robber Barons”

  1. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean everyone isn’t out to get you.

  2. I think it ultimately has to come down to transparency and choice. People have to know what they are agreeing to, what they are sharing, what purpose that data will be used for, and then give them the power to opt out – and everything has to be clear.

    My data was shared with Cambridge Analytica. I didn’t consent to that. I didn’t use the app – someone on my friend list did. Yes, there is technically a setting buried 8 pages deep where I could have switched off the ability for friend accounts to hoover up my data on behalf of a third-party, but it’s hard to switch off something you don’t know about.

    Users are not giving informed consent, is what I mean. And that is by design. It’s not like this crept up on Facebook or a fox found a hole in the fence, a disregard for privacy and carelessness toward data is hard-wired into Facebook.

    I think there is lot more to come out – I don’t mean the political stuff. I mean data/privacy stuff. Tip of the iceberg so far, I think.

    • Well-said, David.

    • Yes. 🙁

      I’m sorry your data was caught up in the Cambridge Analytica debacle, but Google is possibly a greater danger than Facebook. The reason? Because it also owns the Android firmware used in all? non-Apple mobile phones[Apple has its own tracking].

      If you check through your Android phone settings, you should eventually come to a setting called ‘backup’ or something similar. When I looked at my backup option, I discovered that the contact list on my Android phone automatically backed up to Google. This is the default setting and I knew nothing about it until then. I disabled the setting but miles too late.

      Geo-location is another tracking tool that can pin-point your phone, and by extension you, to within a few metres. Add all that data to the data Facebook [and other tech giants] share with Google, and each other, and the tracking is no longer ‘meta’. It’s also no longer anonymous.

      The Facebook probe is definitely the tip of the iceberg.

    • My data was shared with Cambridge Analytica. I didn’t consent to that.

      It was probably also shared with the Obama Campaign in 2012.

      • I couldn’t care less about the partisan bunfight and don’t see how that is remotely relevant.

        • When data is shared without the person’s consent, can we determine if it is relevant based on the recipient?

          It’s an interesting question because there was no uproar in the press in 2012 when even more people had their data distributed to an outside party.

          Which is relevant? Cambridge Analytica or the Obama Campaign?

          • I think someone put a teabag in your battery hole.

            • If we look back to 2012 and 2013, all we heard was praise for how the Obama Campaign used social data. The head of the Obama data operation bragged about how they worked with FB to get the data. She said they were granted special access because nobody else was allowed to do the same.

              So, it’s reasonable to ask if the furor we see today is because of a lack of FB user consent, or because the data was shared with recipients the privacy advocates don’t like.

              • You really are insistent on making this another partisan piñata. I’m not American, I don’t care about your endless binary political arguments. I do care about the issues of privacy and transparency and consent, which is what I was talking about. Nothing to do with politics.

  3. I regularly do about ten Google searches for an item I am considering buying. Then turn off ad blocker. That gives me lots of ads for the item without doing any more work.

    • I got rid of Google almost two weeks ago now, and I’ve found DuckDuckGo to be an excellent alternative. It is possible to live without Google. 🙂

      • Yup.
        I get by fine with Bing.
        Online search is getting to be “old tech” and Google doesn’t have much on an edge anymore. There’s opportunity there for companies who have big enough revenue streams and don’t need to sell consumer data to make money.

        • If by ‘old tech’ you mean that most people live on social media platforms now and do their searching on them…ugh. Maybe we deserve what we get. We had the chance to be free and blew it.

          • Old tech, as in that the techniques and principles for good search engines are broadly known and offer no competitive advantage. Anybody willing to make a play in the search space can do it. Bing is as good as Google is as good as DuckDuckGo is as good as…whatever.

            People sticking with Google do so out of inertia more than out of need. Would be competitors stay away because of that inertia. But if Google keeps on annoying people that inertia can be overcome.

            I’m pretty sure that right now, some outfit or other is busy cooking up a way to graft so-called AI and/or Voice commands to their search engine do outdo google.

            Maybe IBM with Watson, maybe Microsoft, maybe Amazon, maybe somebody we haven’t heard of. Or all the above.

            • Ah, I see. Actually that’s really interesting because I had no idea that what made Google ‘special’ in the beginning is no longer special at all.

              Speaking of Google, read a post on Medium by an ex-Google engineer in which he said that Google doesn’t really innovate any more. Or perhaps, doesn’t innovate very successfully. Ditto Facebook. I wonder if that is an inevitable consequence of ‘size’?

              • Size, to an extent.
                But not all big companies stop innovating.
                Google and Facebook, it’s more a function of being one-trick ponies.The

                Companies with multiple major revenue streams have more room for creativity than companies milking a single cash cow.



                It’s not that they don’t try but rather that their culture and market approach tends to limit their traction. Historically, very few tech companies have second, much less third acts. The most common scenario is that of Ashton-Tate, Lotus, Wordstar, Wordperfect… Very successful companies…for a while. Maintaining that level of success becomes critical to corporate survival and tends to suck up all the resources that might go to other products/markets.

                One example today: Apple.
                iPhone and iPad generate 70% of Apple revenue–the entire Mac line, barely 10%. One result: the Mac business gets treated like an afterthought, with specific models going years without hardware updates. Even Apple supporters in the media can’t figure out why. Or they don’t want to state the obvious too directly.


                “Maybe this is a “hobby” project over at Apple, and it’s having to fit around the big money-makers. Sure, pro-grade Apple hardware is expensive, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the iPhone (the launch of the iMac Pro didn’t even blip the revenue needle for Mac sales following its release).”

                Over the years, Google has launched literally dozens of software and service projects that they then gave up on because they failed to generate revenue in line with online search. There’s even an online cemetery memorializing the dead projects:


                Not exactly fun for the people working those projects to see their work go for nought. Some were bad ideas to start with, some never found a market, some were simply starved for support. But some were worthy. Or would have been at a company where a product generating merely millions in revenue would be considered a success.

                It’s the old blockbuster mentality.
                Like in Hollywood and gaming, incremental tweaks (sequels) are preferable to risky innovation, especially if the innovation isn’t a monster success at launch.

                Some big companies get too focused on their cash cows and then get blindsided by small, hungrier players, who then eat up their market and grow big and complacent themselves. It’s another form of the “circle of life”. 🙂

                • Thanks for those links. I was really surprised to discover that M$ has diversified so much. I’m a Playstation fan so I discounted the popularity of the XBox. As for Google, I’ve never even heard of most of those duds. Very much a blockbuster mentality. Or perhaps those at the top have simply lost touch with the people their products are supposed to be /for/.

                • When people talk about social networks, they tend to forget that XBOX LIVE, PlayStation Network, Steam, and even Twitch are social networks. They’re just focused on gaming instead of gossip. Plus, they make their money directly from the users instead of from ads so they aren’t as visible as the ad peddlers. They NEED to protect their user data.

                  As for diversification, MS has been diversified from day one. Their first product was BASIC for CP/M. Their second was an add-in CP/M card for the Apple II. In the 80’s, they sold MS-Dos, but they also sold XENIX, the most commonly used form of UNIX in the business world. MS-DOS was for single user systems and XENIX for servers and multi-user systems. They sold BASIC for ATARI and COMMODORE and versions of WORD for pretty much everything with measurable market share.

                  That’s where the corporate culture thing comes in: Gates was determined to build a company that would outlive him so he made sure they would never be dependent solely on one client or market, just one product or partner. It meant friction with IBM and INTEL and it meant propping up Apple when they were on the verge of collapse but for ages MS made more money off Macintoshes than Apple.

                  And, today, well they don’t get the headlines but they are all over and out-innovating the headline makers. Google Glass got lots of press but failed, whereas Hololens is quietly solving real world problems in niche markets like elevator repair and medicine. Not as noticeable as selling VR gaming headsets but it does position them for the next wave of computing. They’re in pretty good shape for a company in tbeir forties. 🙂

                  History will be very kind to Bill Gates once all is said and done.

  4. Just for the record, I deleted my Facebook account a few days ago only to discover that Facebook won’t actually delete it for 14 days after the request.

    I have /no/ idea why deleting a digital account should take 14 days unless that’s how long it’ll take to extricate my data from all the other places where Facebook has allowed it to go.

    • Unfortunately, we don’t know what “Delete” means with FB.

      • It means whatever they want it to mean.

        Most likely it means the account is dead and inaccessible…
        …until you ask them to undelete it and they “miraculously” reconstruct it from archives nobody knows about.

        (Does anybody think Internet Archive and its wayback machine is the only day by day copy of the internet?)

        • Yeah, you’re both right. I never expected the delete to work miracles. Call it a protest vote which won’t mean much unless the general exodus continues unabated. It won’t.

          Those who can’t live without Facebook will continue to believe the lies: “Darling, I swear. It’s over. She was just a moment of madness. You’re the only one I love…”

          …until a new nimble-young-and-sexy comes along to sweep them off their collective feet.

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