Sunday, 25 March 2018

Your money and your life

The still emerging scandal of the use of Facebook users’ data by Cambridge Analytica for political campaigning has numerous dimensions to it – political, technological, ethical and social. One particular aspect that I find interesting is the idea that users (may) have given their consent to the various ways their data is used by signing up for services. It has apparently long been a truism in the tech world that ‘if the product is free then you are the product’, and on that basis it is claimed that signing up for services is a matter of caveat emptor or ‘buyer beware’ - or should that, in this case, be ‘donor aware’ since the point seems to be that what we should beware of is not buying?

There seems an obvious difficulty with this: how can we make such judgments if we do not know what we are agreeing to? The answer, invariably, is that what is required is greater transparency. However, as Jana Costas and I wrote in our book on secrecy in organizations, using exactly the example of accessing on-line services, transparency is not what it appears to be:

“Indeed, one can even see how increased transparency also entails increased secrecy, as the very proliferation of information makes it easy to hide secrets which get overlooked in the overwhelming torrent of disclosure. For example, consider the ubiquitous ‘terms and conditions’ to which one signs up when using web-based services. These are so detailed and complex that few of us bother to read them, and fewer still will understand them. So we just check the box indicating agreement. If subsequently this causes problems the provider can quite legitimately say that nothing was kept secret and, indeed, that there had been the fullest transparency possible. Yet it is a transparency that obscures rather than reveals.” (Costas & Grey, 2016: 53)

In these circumstances, the idea of a choice being made seems deeply unrealistic. Of course, a ‘hardline’ response would be to say that if people cannot be bothered to read and understand the T&Cs then that is, precisely, their choice. After all, they could simply not sign up to Facebook. In fact, 2.2 billion people worldwide log in to it at least once month, which is getting close to a third of the global population. No one forces them to.

That is true and, personally, I have never had a Facebook account. But it’s increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to exist without signing up to anything at all. It isn’t as if it is just a matter of social media, it is also about the multitude of on-line services that people need to use in some cases including very basic things without which it is impossible to function, including state welfare. The space for an off-line life is becoming very small indeed (generating the new phenomenon of 'cyber insecurity'). No one can, realistically, ‘choose’ to opt out of the entirety of this, even if we have choice about using this or that platform. Nor is it the case (so far as I know) that any on-line provider of anything offers not to collect any data on its users, and that is the case as much for paid for products as for ‘free’ products. Indeed, just browsing websites requires agreement (assumed as given if we continue to browse) to the use of cookies.

Choice and informed decision making in this context are therefore highly precarious, if not meaningless. Apart from the general issue of take-it-or-leave it sign ups to T&Cs, my experience, at least, is that opting out of specific permissions for, for example, receiving marketing materials from companies are often breached. And I frequently receive marketing messages from companies I have never had any contact with which offer the option of unsubscribing – but only if I provide my email address. So I am expected to ‘choose’ to provide data in order to avoid messages that I have never chosen to receive in the first place. Beyond that, my computer and phone are constantly chuntering away doing things that I have no understanding of at all, and constantly nagging me to provide more information about myself (for example my geographical location). There are even cases of phones and other mobile devices continuing to harvest such data despite users having (supposedly) disabled its provision.

Some of these issues are not new in principle. Over 30 years ago I began work on my PhD which was concerned with financial services regulation. Some of the big issues at the time were (as they continue to be) whether people actually understood what they were signing up for when they took out, for example, a life insurance policy, pension, or mortgage. This was all about, in effect, terms and conditions and hidden costs. Associated with this was the question of the sales and marketing tactics used in the industry. And, indeed, in the intervening years we have seen ongoing scandals about the mis-selling of, for example, endowment mortgages and Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) – and, ironically, the subsequent scandals around the pressure selling of PPI compensation claims. The regulation of such matters was, again, primarily conceived of in terms of transparency of information in order to promote ‘informed choice’. Yet this in turn has generated a mass of information which only someone already highly knowledgeable is really in a position to evaluate.

However, the current situation of the mining of on-line data whilst similar in principle is far more extensive in scope. It is all-encompassing in the way that buying a financial product is not, reaching far more deeply into our lives – and also, as the Facebook scandal seems to suggest, into the lives of the people we interact with (that is, Facebook friends). There also seems to be something qualitatively different about the ‘if the product is free then you are the product’ mantra in that whereas it is pretty clear that what, say, a financial advisor is after – your money – what the data wranglers are after seems to be not just your money but your life. 

Costas, J. & Grey, C. (2016). Secrecy at Work. The Hidden Architecture of Organizational Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.