Facebook's Data Dilemma

Authoring a tech post on the Guardian this past Tuesday, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, a former product manager at Facebook, explains how he "was charged with turning Facebook data into money, by any legal means":

Converting Facebook data into money is harder than it sounds, mostly because the vast bulk of your user data is worthless. Turns out your blotto-drunk party pics and flirty co-worker messages have no commercial value whatsoever.

But occasionally, if used very cleverly, with lots of machine-learning iteration and systematic trial-and-error, the canny marketer can find just the right admixture of age, geography, time of day, and music or film tastes that demarcate a demographic winner of an audience. The “clickthrough rate”, to use the advertiser’s parlance, doesn’t lie.

Yadda yadda, we've heard this all before. It's how most ad platforms operate these days -- harnessing machine-learning and all sorts of other [likely] hobbled together algorithms that provide conduits for proprietary data to advertisers and agencies to use in various campaigns to micro-target audiences and potential customers.

This is probably where privacy advocates should come shouting that this is a misuse of personal data. But is it? Facebook has provided its users a free service monetized by users' own tenacity to share and provide Facebook (and, subsequently, its advertisers) everything about themselves. While you could argue that some of the data provided is "personally identifiable information" (PII), Facebook hasn't forced you to share that information. And since users provide that information, Facebook can more or less do what it wants with it. Garcia-Martinez tends to agree, arguing that processing profile traits and post contents to inform demographic and audience triggers can easily be done with programming, so should its application matter to the masses?

The hard reality is that Facebook will never try to limit such use of their data unless the public uproar reaches such a crescendo as to be un-mutable. Which is what happened with Trump and the “fake news” accusation: even the implacable Zuck had to give in and introduce some anti-fake news technology. But they’ll slip that trap as soon as they can. And why shouldn’t they? At least in the case of ads, the data and the clickthrough rates are on their side.

There's also a link to another Guardian post that discusses how Facebook shares teens' emotional states with advertisers (likely derived by some kind of algorithm-based sentiment model). If we've learned anything at all about algorithms, it's that they can misinform as often as they can inform. A user uproar could certainly change the fate of data sharing with advertisers, but I don't see this happening until something truly offensive occurs, probably akin to Target's mishap a few years ago. And even that won't stop the use of data to inform advertising campaigns and the marketing of products/services on these platforms. The temptation (and intrinsic need) to use data is too fierce. And the rate of engagement on these platforms, with the amount of information being provided on a daily basis, is unprecidented by anything similar in human history.

While platforms like Facebook continue to require our attention to survive, they increasingly also need us to provide data to feed its monetary engine. The two are almost inexplicably tied together. Time and tolerance will tell how this shakes out.

The Trials of Deleting Uber

Uber's public image has had a hell of a first quarter. I can't recall the last tech company in recent history that ran into shitstorm after shitstorm as reliably and as damningly as they have. In today's New York Times, there's a profile on Uber CEO Travis Kalanick by Mike Isaac that details some of these tribulations, among them them a confrontation with Apple's CEO, Tim Cook. Notably, Uber had attempted to obfuscate from Apple its nefarious practices around user location-tracking and device-identifying (called "fingerprinting"). This practice would allow Uber to identify an individual iPhone even after the app was deleted and/or the phone reset. If it sounds egregious, it is. As The Verge points out, this is more of the same deceptive bullshit Uber has pulled off in recent years, including “evad[ing] government regulators and track[ing] rival drivers, track[ing] customers without permission, and being sued for allegedly stealing proprietary information regarding self-driving cars from Alphabet’s Waymo. “

Can most of this be blamed on the CEO? According to that profile, probably:

But the previously unreported encounter with Mr. Cook showed how Mr. Kalanick was also responsible for risk-taking that pushed Uber beyond the pale, sometimes to the very brink of implosion.

Crossing that line was not a one-off for Mr. Kalanick. According to interviews with more than 50 current and former Uber employees, investors and others with whom the executive had personal relationships, Mr. Kalanick, 40, is driven to the point that he must win at whatever he puts his mind to and at whatever cost — a trait that has now plunged Uber into its most sustained set of crises since its founding in 2009.

As long as deleting apps and still having the potentiality of being tracked by the deleted company is a threat to privacy and security, I hope technology gate companies like Apple continue to fight the good fight.

Update (APRIL 24, 2017)

Additional speculation (and clarification) from the fallout of the New York Times profile article from John Gruber (Apple pundit extraordinaire):

That sounds like Uber was doing the identifying and “tagging” (whatever that is) after the app had been deleted and/or the device wiped, but I think what it might — might — actually mean is merely that the identification persisted after the app had been deleted and/or the device wiped. That’s not supposed to be technically possible — iOS APIs for things like the UDID and even the MAC address stopped reporting unique identifiers years ago, because they were being abused by privacy invasive ad trackers, analytics packages, and entitled shitbags like Uber. That’s wrong, and Apple was right to put an end to it, but it’s far less sensational than the prospect of Uber having been able to identify and “tag” an iPhone after the Uber app had been deleted. The latter scenario only seems technically possible if other third-party apps were executing surreptitious code that did this stuff through Uber’s SDK, or if the Uber app left behind malware outside the app’s sandbox. I don’t think that’s the case, if only because I don’t think Apple would have hesitated to remove Uber from the App Store if it was infecting iPhones with hidden phone-home malware.

John's whole piece is worth reading if you want much clarity on what Uber was presumably doing. Curious what their tactics were/are for other phone manufacturers.


"Nobody's Got to Use the Internet"

We heard some fighting words from US Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) this week, a stocky old man defending why he contributed to the elimination of privacy rules for Internet Service Providers (ISPs), which affect all Americans living in this country. I quote: "Nobody's got to use the Internet."

He went on to say that if you regulated the Internet like a utility, "we wouldn't have the Internet". His nonsensical retort to his constituents proves an incredulous disconnect between our elected officials and the reality of our country's people. This is typical Republican rhetoric applied to what should be a nonpartisan issue. The Internet is woven into the fabric of our society, and throwing blanket statements like it's optional for anyone in this country to use it is unfathomably stupid. Perhaps for an old man, using the Internet is not nearly as intrinsic to living day-to-day as it is for the rest of us, but it is concerning that such a man is contributing to the rules that govern our privacy and the public utility that is the Internet.

The ruling is disappointing, and comes at a crucial time in our democracy where the intersection of connected devices, surveillance, and our right to privacy and dignity has become an increasing important fork in political decision-making. It will continue to be an area requiring, justifiably, government regulation. No one is saying choice is a bad thing here, but applying such rationale to ISPs' clamoring for advertising "innovation" is ridiculous. ISPs are feeling pressure from advertising giants like Facebook and Google, and are begging (sorry, lobbying) to gain a foothold to justify their existence as something more meaningful than being an expensive pipe to the Internet. We also can see how well this strategy is working for Verizon and AT&T, both telecommunications behemoths that are investing heavily in content and lobbying hard against net neutrality to justify business expansion to their shareholders since they've sunken into a similar dilemma.

The bullshit doesn't end here.

US Rep Jim Sensenbrennar (R-Wis)