Facebook and Google are putting the SIS to shame

by Bill Ralston / 10 April, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Facebook Google SIS

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo/Getty Images

As much as you may fret about the SIS bugging your house, phone and computer, at least they have to show good reason for a judge to let them do it.

Over the years, I have watched various protests against institutions spying in New Zealand: the SIS, GCSB, Five Eyes and places like the satellite base at Waihopai. What amazes me is, notwithstanding the abhorrence many people feel about these state organisations poking about in our lives, billions of social-media users are happily allowing foreign multinational companies to harvest an immense amount of personal and supposedly private information about themselves and sell it to others.

The news that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica used information culled from internet sites to profile and target voters in the Brexit and US Presidential votes seems to have sent a chill down our collective spine, but really, we make it easy for vultures like this to stare into our lives and start messing with the way we think.

Data consultant Dylan Curran wrote a piece for the Guardian about how much of our information the two social-media giants, Google and Facebook, hold.

He dug into the pair to find out what they had on him. Thanks to location tracking on his phone, Google had maps that pinpointed everywhere he had been since he installed the app.

Google has the history of everything you have ever used it to search for online and has access to any files you have stored in Google Drive, even the ones you thought you had deleted. It has built up an advertising profile on you. If, like most of us, you use a mobile phone running the Android operating system, it knows what apps you use, it has your YouTube history, your bookmarks, your contacts, your emails, the photos you have on your phone, your calendar and much more.

Facebook has stored every message and file you have sent or been sent and all your phone contacts. It tracks your location and can access your webcam and microphone. And there is no point in rushing to frantically delete your computer history; it keeps everything you have deleted.

That is just two social-media apps. Twitter, Instagram and the horde of smaller ones beavering away stockpiling everything you say and do online? All of the material they have can be flogged off to advertisers, your competitors or your enemies.

I closed my Facebook account a couple of years ago, yet I still get obscure messages from Facebook on my phone, which I never read. Today, curious, I pushed “download” on one of them. “Welcome back!” screamed Facebook. No thanks.

Because I use Google’s Gmail to send material to the Listener, chances are someone in Silicon Valley has read this column before you. That is not really a worry. However, what photos or videos do you have on your computer or phone? Somewhere a fat spotty nerd half the world away may be perusing them. That risqué shot you sent to your spouse may now be adorning the wall of the nerd’s office cubicle. Worse, it may be shared online.

I always assumed the amount of spam email I received was because my email address was on my business website, but I now realise my inbox could just as easily have been accessed thanks to one of the social-media companies’ data-mining activities.

As much as you may fret about the spooks in the SIS or GCSB bugging your house, phone and computer, at least they have to show good reason for a judge to let them do it. Facebook, Google and the rest of the faceless gang of personal information harvesters do it themselves, with your consent. Remember that blurb they sent you when you signed up for the app? You clicked “agree”.

Big Brother is now watching us – and we asked for it.

This article was first published in the April 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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