Facebook and Privacy

Back in the 80s, I had a boss who, during the 1960s, worked at Aerojet-General while they were developing the rockets for the Apollo Lunar Module. I programmed their HP 3000, which was a mini computer – the kind of computer that enabled thousands of small and medium sized businesses who had no hope of having a mainframe to have a computer.

IBM had recently legitimized the microcomputer with their Personal Computer, and they were just startling to make inroads.

People were asking in the very early days what do they do with it? Many salesmen would reply that one could store recipes – to which the rejoinder was “you can also store them in a metal box”. 

Anyway, my boss would say that Lotus 1-2-3 (the predecessor to Excel) wasn’t really new  – they had a program on their mainframe at Aerojet that did essentially the same thing – on printouts, of course as there were no CRT terminals.

On the encroaching PCs in the business, he made the proclamation “toy computers – nothing will become of them”. 

Well, he was right about one thing – in computer history there is very rarely anything truly new – just better ways of doing it. And someone said something that always stayed with me – that the computer was the only invention by man with no specific end purpose – the owner decides the purpose through programming software.

Today the micro-computer is doing far more than storing recipes – everything from accounting to web browsing on smartphones to controlling the fuel injection system in a modern car.

A Very Brief History of Social Media

Many people believe that this “social media” phenomenon is a recent thing.

It actually preceded the World Wide Web, and Browsers, which were created in 1989 and 1994, respectively.  Both allowed the creation of companies like Facebook and Twitter.

But back in the Paleolithic Age  with the rise of the micro computer that made them affordable for virtually everyone, we had what were known as “BBS’s” – Bulletin Board Systems. These started around the early to mid 1980s. Maybe the late 70s. I’m not the final authority on this, just reciting what I remember.

They were a personal computer or Apple that was dedicated as a “server”, almost always in someone’s house. Access was through dial up phone lines. While there were programs that one could use for the host that were  commercially or freely available, many wrote their own. I used to use a site called Earl’s Castle, and the owner wrote his own program to take those calls and make his computer a server. He had a popular site. Like today, many chose handles. I was “cman” – for learning the “C” programming language and I remember conversing a lot with Fossil Freak.

Like today “flaming” – showing anger through the typed word, was around. There’s something lacking about no physical interpersonal contact that can bring out the worst in some people.

You knew a site was popular when the line was busy most of the time. You couldn’t log in until the last person got off. The real fancy BBSs had multiple lines that businesses have. Maybe 3 could be on at one time but if all were used you still had to wait until someone logged off.

Like Facebook, they had dedicated “rooms” devoted to different topics, and people enjoyed communicating, just as they do on Facebook.

And in an era when dial up was still relatively expensive, the really good sites would have people dialing in from who knows where. High Speed Internet? When I went from a 1200 bps modem to 2400 I thought I was really going. With the size of bytes in today’s web sites, that speed would be unusable.

So, social media is not new.

What is new is how it is being used by some.

If it weren’t for the Lexicans I would not be on Facebook. Be that as it may, sometime ago the discussion of privacy came up and one said “If you are using something for free and wondering what their product is, you are the product“.

When I was in the Army they originally gave me the MOS (that’s Military Occupational Specialty to you civilians) as a 16H10 – Artillery Operations and Intelligence Assistant.

And what I learned from this is how easy it is to extract information from people – and situations – from seemingly innocuous statements and sights. And sometimes it isn’t what they say, but what they don’t say.

There’s a scene from the movie Patton where George C. Scott’s character is at a riverside after a battle, and says that the Germans are almost through, and but for a little gasoline he could be in Berlin in a matter of days.

He noticed their empty fuel drums floating in the river, and their horse-drawn carts.

We see, but most times we don’t truly observe.

What is different about Facebook is that they collect data about its users. Over 2.3 billion of them.

Facebook, in an effort to qualify its users to advertisers, observes things about their users that the user doesn’t even think about.

You want to announce in your profile page where you live? What you like? How old you are? Your likes and dislikes? All distilled by their software. I have heard even what you “like” on various posts is analyzed. I am sure there are a thousand other points they distill through some very sophisticated software algorithms.

I read something the other day that surprised me: that more digital photos are uploaded every year to Facebook than all the print photo shots ever taken in the history of film. From the above referenced site, over 300 million photos are uploaded every day.

All that is well and good, I suppose, as the price people pay for using a sophisticated site. The other day, I enjoyed seeing the reactions of people around the world when I uploaded some photos.

Of course the less you give them about yourself the less they know. The problem comes when they misuse this data – giving it to outside firms for political candidates, or, as I learned in today’s WSJ, having apps that smartphone users use that send data – without their knowledge – to Facebook. Even if the user doesn’t even have an account at Facebook.

Everything from your heartbeat count to ovulation cycle  to…real estate prices, location, and price range and searches in your area . Wonder why you suddenly have an ad from a realtor you hadn’t contacted? That’s why.

“Millions of smartphone users confess their most intimate secrets to apps, including when they want to work on their belly fat or the price of the house they checked out last weekend. Other apps know users’ body weight, blood pressure, menstrual cycles or pregnancy status.

Unbeknown to most people, in many cases that data is being shared with someone else: Facebook Inc. FB 1.16%

The social-media giant collects intensely personal information from many popular smartphone apps just seconds after users enter it, even if the user has no connection to Facebook, according to testing done by The Wall Street Journal. The apps often send the data without any prominent or specific disclosure, the testing showed…

AppleInc. and AlphabetInc.’s Google, which operate the two dominant app stores, don’t require apps to disclose all the partners with whom data is shared. Users can decide not to grant permission for an app to access certain types of information, such as their contacts or locations. But these permissions generally don’t apply to the information users supply directly to apps, which is sometimes the most personal.

In the Journal’s testing, Instant Heart Rate: HR Monitor, the most popular heart-rate app on Apple’s iOS, made by California-based Azumio Inc., sent a user’s heart rate to Facebook immediately after it was recorded.

Flo Health Inc.’s Flo Period & Ovulation Tracker, which claims 25 million active users, told Facebook when a user was having her period or informed the app of an intention to get pregnant, the tests showed.

Real-estate app Realtor.com, owned by Move Inc., a subsidiary of Wall Street Journal parent News Corp, sent the social network the location and price of listings that a user viewed, noting which ones were marked as favorites, the tests showed.

None of those apps provided users any apparent way to stop that information from being sent to Facebook.”

How does this occur?

“…Facebook said some of the data sharing uncovered by the Journal’s testing appeared to violate its business terms, which instruct app developers not to send it “health, financial information or other categories of sensitive information.” Facebook said it is telling apps flagged by the Journal to stop sending information its users might regard as sensitive. The company said it may take additional action if the apps don’t comply.

“We require app developers to be clear with their users about the information they are sharing with us,” a Facebook spokeswoman said.

At the heart of the issue is an analytics tool Facebook offers developers, which allows them to see statistics about their users’ activities—and to target those users with Facebook ads. Although Facebook’s terms give it latitude to use the data uncovered by the Journal for other purposes, the spokeswoman said it doesn’t do so.

Whether this policy is approved by Facebook or not, it is one reason I keep all sensitive information (such as financial transactions) off my iPhone. Another reason is vulnerability on public WiFi networks.
It’s an article worth reading.

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