Paying with attention
HAVE you tried downloading the data Facebook has on you? A number of American columnists did that in recent weeks and were surprised (some, appalled) by how detailed the information was. Facebook, they learned, kept track of every friend request they’ve ever ignored or denied, as well as every person they’ve ever unfriended. It also knew every ad they had ever clicked, and had a list of companies who had their information, to do with as they pleased.
You could, of course, delete your Facebook account. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak did that in response to reports that third parties like Cambridge Analytica had picked up data from millions of FB users, and used that to target them for certain political ads. But does deleting your account mean that Facebook or the advertisers it works with would no longer have access to your information? No guarantees there.
When he faced a congressional inquiry this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked how long the company held on to data after a user had deleted his or her account. He couldn’t say right away, but promised his team “would get back” to Congress on that.
That’s a stark reminder of how little control we have over the information that we’ve signed over to this tech juggernaut Zuckerberg has built. (Some might call it a techno-imperialist juggernaut, but those are the people whose friend requests we’ve i gnor ed.)
You know what information would be a real eye-opener from our downloaded Facebook data? The total time we’ve spent catching up, lurking, reading, arguing, encouraging, playing and absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook in the many years we’ve been on it. That includes all the time we spent planting virtual potatoes, laughing at memes, playing Scrabble with strangers because we wanted to prove we could beat them at their own language, and taking quizzes that promised to reveal something new about us to ourselves. And also who among the celebrities we resembled.
Some of the hand-wringing Facebook has provoked would be funny if it wasn’t so earnest. Perhaps we’re also peeved that Zuckerberg found a way to cash in on the idea that we enjoy seeing and being seen, which are the same impulses that drive curiosity, attraction, and connection.
Nearly 70 years ago, the novelist George Orwell warned, “Big Brother is watching you.” He/she/it still is. More than 1,700 satellites watch the planet, some of these so powerful that “from outer space, a camera clicks and a detailed image of the block where we work can be acquired by a total stranger,” Robert Draper wrote in a terrific article in the February 2018 issue of the National Geographic. As an exercise, try spotting all the closed-circuit TV cameras that capture the spaces where you work, eat or, yes, watch other people go by.
Yet the idea that surveillance is the price we pay for safety has become so commonplace, that most of us hardly think about how that compromises our privacy. We even volunteer so much information on social media— where we are, what we’re wearing, what we’ve bought or eaten— that surveillance almost seems redundant. Our secrets aren’t always safe with us, it seems.
When this summer started, my 10-year-old nephew asked for a notebook he could use as a journal, and being a sucker for journals and boys who write, I gave in. As soon as he got home, he bored a hole into the journal and placed a tiny padlock, the kind one uses for luggage, in it, so his brother wouldn’t read what he had written.
(Or find out who his latest crush was.) I began to see then why I haven’t mustered the nerve to download my Facebook data just yet. All the attention I’ve paid or asked for, all those frivolities I’ve made visible: am I ready to see all that again? Who knows what I might find?— Isolde D. Amante