While we played Candy Crush, our pri­vate lives were pack­aged, ex­ploited and sold to the high­est bid­der

The Irish Times Magazine - - CONTENTS - jo­con­nell@ irish­times. com

Istill cringe when I think about my first Face­book post. It was 2007, and I kept hear­ing about this pub­lic mes­sag­ing board which al­lowed you to “poke” peo­ple and to spy on their con­ver­sa­tions. It all sounded silly, point­less and in­va­sive. Nat­u­rally, I was to­tally on board. The first thing I did was send a joke about tod­dlers and peas to my best friend. Or that’s what I thought I was do­ing. In­stead, I posted it on the time­lines of ev­ery­one in my ad­dress book. Mor­ti­fied, it took me about an­other year to try again. Now, of course, I wish I had just stayed away.

You can’t say we weren’t warned that Face­book was a pri­vacy cat­a­clysm wait­ing to hap­pen. But ev­ery­one who tried to tell us was met with an on­slaught of to­tal ap­a­thy. Sure, Face­book’s pri­vacy pol­icy – which in 2008 cheer­ily stated that “we are not re­spon­si­ble for cir­cum­ven­tion of any pri­vacy set­tings or se­cu­rity mea­sures con­tained on the site” – was trou­bling. And yes, ad­mit­tedly, the bit that an­nounced “we may use in­for­ma­tion about you that we col­lect from other sources, in­clud­ing but not limited to news­pa­pers and In­ter­net sources such as blogs, in­stant mes­sag­ing ser­vices and other users of Face­book,” did sound sin­is­ter, when you thought about it. But why would you think about it too hard when you had an­other set of hon­ey­moon pho­tos to flick through?

No­body paid too much at­ten­tion to the line, ei­ther, that stated “Face­book does not screen or ap­prove Plat­form Devel­op­ers and can­not con­trol how such Plat­form Devel­op­ers use any per­sonal in­for­ma­tion”, but it was there, too, in black and white. But you see, if you didn’t have any­thing to hide, the con­ven­tional wis­dom went, you didn’t have any­thing to worry about. Then the con­ven­tional wis­dom got dis­tracted by the fact that Suzanne had posted a photo of her new boyfriend. Who would be in­ter­ested in my data any­way, we re­as­sured each other, and . . . oh look! An­other fun per­son­al­ity sur­vey! Sorry, what was I say­ing?

For years now, in sur­vey af­ter sur­vey, con­sumers have claimed to have pro­found and grow­ing fears about pri­vacy, about the prospect of our pri­vate data be­ing mined by Face­book, Google and Twit­ter. But th­ese com­pa­nies have been com­fort­able ig­nor­ing our con­cerns be­cause our be­hav­iour has al­ways sug­gested pre­cisely the op­po­site.

The worst part about the Face­book rev­e­la­tions is that it all hap­pened in plain sight. Not only was it not il­le­gal, it wasn’t even a data breach. While we were play­ing Candy Crush, our pri­vate lives were pack­aged, ex­ploited and sold to the high­est bid­der, and we didn’t even lift our heads from our phones to protest.

I started to feel un­easy about Face­book dur­ing the two years I lived in Sil­i­con Val­ley. I re­mem­ber get­ting a tour around the ver­dant 40,000 sq m cam­pus in Menlo Park, past the wood­work shop and the vin­tage video games ar­cade. The guy who was show­ing me around pointed out where they were build­ing “apart­ments for our peo­ple to live”.

“So they’ll work on cam­pus, they’ll eat on cam­pus, they’ll so­cialise on cam­pus and now they’ll sleep on cam­pus?” I asked. I won­dered whether maybe that was kind of un­healthy. Creepy, even.

My guide looked right at me, and for a mo­ment, his megawatt smile fal­tered. When he first worked there, it re­minded him of the Dave Eg­gers book, The Cir­cle, he said. Then he started talk­ing about the op­por­tu­nity to con­nect the world’s peo­ple, and I stopped lis­ten­ing.

I was left with a vi­sion of Sil­i­con Val­ley as a place pop­u­lated with in­su­lar, hy­per- priv­i­leged, mod­ern takes on com­pany towns – places en­gi­neered so that em­ploy­ees, profit and group­think could flour­ish in glo­ri­ous tan­dem, un­tram­melled by the con­cerns of the out­side world, whose cit­i­zens’ lives they were shap­ing in ways we’re only be­gin­ning to un­der­stand.

Of course, I’m as lazy and ap­a­thetic as the rest of the one bil­lion. It took me un­til two weeks ago to ac­tu­ally delete my Face­book ac­count.

If you’re still de­cid­ing whether or not you should do the same, my ad­vice is to weigh up the po­ten­tial losses and gains. Losses: Con­ve­nience. The il­lu­sion of con­nec­tion. The reg­u­lar dopamine highs you get from shar­ing. If you’re a small busi­ness, you might need Face­book to ad­ver­tise, but re­cent changes to its al­go­rithm made that more dif­fi­cult any­way.

In the gain col­umn, there’s your pri­vacy. Your chil­dren’s pri­vacy. Some su­per­fi­cial threads of friend­ship will snap, but you might be en­cour­aged to start weav­ing more mean­ing­ful ones.

For me, the most com­pelling gain turned out to be time. The av­er­age user spends 50 min­utes a day on a Face­book- owned app. That’s roughly the same time as our grand­par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion spent pray­ing. If you were to re­claim even some of those min­utes you could make a meal from scratch or have a power nap or write the first words of your fu­ture best­seller or go for a walk. You could have a proper con­ver­sa­tion. You could learn a lan­guage, or dust off your paint­brushes or your foot­ball boots. Or you could do the one thing that most ap­pals our tech over­lords, a prospect that hor­ri­fies them be­yond mea­sure – you could noth­ing at all.

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