Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Facebook: Killing Us One Stone At A Time

They killed Margaret Clitherow on the 25th of March, 1586. They did it very slowly, by laying her own front door on top of her and then piling rocks on top of it until she was crushed to death, a process called "pressing." It took about 15 painful minutes for her to die. (Which is nothing compared to the ordeal of 81-year-old Giles Corey of Salem, Massachusetts. Corey was pressed to death for refusing to plead after having been accused of witchcraft. He was a stubborn old man. It took him 3 days to die, and each time his torturers asked him if he was ready to plead, he is said to have responded by crying, "More weight!") Margaret's crime was not witchery, it was that she belonged to the wrong religion at the wrong time. She was a Catholic (and was later sainted), which was not exactly a crime at the time, though it was mightily frowned upon. What was a crime was harboring Catholic priests and failing to attend the prescribed and approved church. (Keep this in mind when you hear someone argue for the compulsory presence of religion in schools, in politics, and in society in general. Be sure to ask them which religion they're talking about. After all, you wouldn't want to select the wrong one.) Margaret failed to attend church and she harbored priests, and then—like Corey—refused to plead. (They refused to plead because that way their families, including children, could not be called to trial and tortured until they gave "evidence," which would then give the authorities the right to repossess any land or other property belonging to the family.) Corey and Clitherow suffered excruciating deaths largely to spare their families; they were tougher than you and me.

The Black Swan Inn in York, where Margaret Clitherow is said to
have housed priests hiding from the authorities. Image copyright
Peter Church and licensed for reuse under the Creative
Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.
Naturally, thinking of huge, heartless entities crushing innocents to death made me think of Facebook.

Facebook collects information about us—about you and me. A lot of information. Then they sell that information (supposedly anonymized and aggregated) to their "partners," companies that wish to sell us goods.

How much data, you ask? Well, you can find out for yourself fairly easily. Just go to your Facebook settings; then select Settings and then click “Download a copy of your Facebook data.” The company will send you a ZIP file containing about 25 folders, each of which contains several HTML documents full of data the company has collected about you. (The complete process is nicely explained here: I did that, and it was an enlightening process.

Here's just some of what Facebook sent me:

A 'Stuff About Me' folder containing face recognition data and address book info (friends, institutions, etc., going back 2 yrs)
An 'ADS' folder containing:
o   Ad interests: 41 pgs of data, 1329 items, ranging from academy awards to action movies, from MacBooks to Method acting, from Smartphones to Sonny Bono (?!), and from tattoos to time travel.
o   An ‘Advertisers Who Uploaded a Contact List With Your Information’ document, whiuch was explained thusly: "Advertisers who run ads using a contact list they uploaded that includes contact info you shared with them or with one of their data partners."
·  This included a list of 211 advertisers, from AARP to Zappos
o   Advertisers I've interacted with (which consisted of about 100 clicked ads)
An ‘Apps and Websites’ folder: Apps I've used Facebook to log into (stretching back to 2013)
A document containing every FB post on which I've commented—including the text of the commentgoing back to 2013
o   A list of every person I'm following and every person who's following me, every page I've ever Unfollowed, and every person I've "friended" and when (dating back to 2009)
A ‘Posts and Comments’ document that included every "like" (or any other reaction) I've posted on a post or comment
A ‘Location History’ folder. Mine is empty, since I've never "checked in" or otherwise informed FB of my location. (But you may have.)
A list of every FB message I've sent or received and from/to whom
A ‘Photos & Videos’ folder containing every… Well, you get the idea.
o   Security & Log-In Info that included session cookies updated (148 MS Word pages, about 7,000 or so cookies), all devices authorized to log in (back to 2013) , and a list of where I've logged in from and when
A document listing my complete search history
And a handy Index.html doc that lets you get to all of this stuff a lot more easily than poking around in every damned folder, which is what I did. Unfortunately, I found this document last.

As you can see, that's a lot of information about me—and honestly, I'm a pretty boring person! Really. You can ask anyone.

He doesn't look like an evil person, does he? At least, he didn't back
in his Harvard days. Image licensed under the Creative Commons
Attribution 2.5 Generic license.
Something should be pointed out here… Near the top of this list is a document that lists advertisers who run ads using a contact list that I shared with them or with one of their data partners. Now, I am perfectly happy (well, moderately happy) to share data with companies that sell products in which I'm interested: computers, say, or archery or cars or motorcycles. But I have no idea who these "data partners" are. It turns out that when I share data with an entity, I'm in effect also sharing it with whomever they decide to share it with. And I have no control over who that might be.

I don't like that.

Really, most of these bits of data are relatively insignificant. If any one or two or five of them got out in public or were sold to a marketer, it probably wouldn't matter much. But, like the stones that killed Giles Corey and Margaret Clitherow, eventually, the combined weight of the stones reaches a critical mass and that one last stone finishes you off. Facebook has collected a LOT of stones, enough to build a fairly accurate—and quite valuable—dossier on every one of its over 2 billion customers. Eventually, we might end up being crushed by those stones.

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