Facebook could be dying right now, but it isn’t, though its usage among younger people has been declining for years, in the face of competition from upstart rivals such as Snapchat, internal disruption from Facebook-owned Instagram, and a general sense that Facebook is full of old people and parents.
But the backlash isn’t a generational thing any more. We’re all losing control of our data, both online and off, and we’re starting to kick back.
Not only is the sprouting #deletefacebookmovement picking up steam (although it will take a few weeks before hard numbers are available about how many have followed through on their words), but people are also beginning to look up, as if from a daydream, to ask: how exactly did we end up in this situation? Why did we give up our privacy so willingly? And how can we get it back?
The 50m profiles harvested from Facebook by a Cambridge Analytic partner under the guise of research are a vast data store, but they pale in comparison with the amount of information the company holds on its users. At the same time that Facebook turned off the spigot that had been used to pump industrial quantities of data of its platform, the company opened up the second set of floodgates: the Facebook Audience Network, which allows third parties to track, profile and advertise to Facebook users wherever they find them on the internet. Do you think someone is stalking you? Think Facebook.
Facebook isn’t a social network. It’s barely even an advertising company. It’s a data analytics firm, which manages to use its position as the middleman for a vast proportion of all human communication to find out everything there is to know about its users, and the users keep growing. A babe born into the world today gets a phone tomorrow, and it is a ‘Hi, Facebook, I’m all yours to spy on, though I’ve got no much secrets yet.’
If you think you’re a passive user of Facebook, minimising the data you provide to the site or refraining from oversharing details of your life, you have probably underestimated the scope of its reach. Facebook doesn’t just learn from the pictures you post, and comments you leave; their algorithms learn by viewing all the content and posts you read and which you don’t. It learns from when you stop scrolling down your feed and how long it takes you to restart; it learns from your browsing on other websites that have nothing to do with Facebook itself, and it even learns from the messages you type out then delete before sending.
This data life isn’t limited to Facebook. Google, famously, is in the same underlying business, although the company is a bit transparent about it. It tries to say to you, ‘Hi, I’m watching you. Don’t you like it? Never mind, I will wait for you still (for a shock, try going to the “My Activity” and “Location History” pages to be vividly reminded that Google is tracking everything). Amazon is building a modern surveillance panopticon, replete with an always-on microphone for your kitchen and a jaunty camera for your bedroom, purely to sell you more stuff.
Change is coming, all shiny and gallant like a knight. In the EU, the General Data Protection Regulation – GDPR – overhauls a continent’s worth of rules around a clear principle that the only person who can ever own an individual’s data is that individual. Olejnik describes the law as a “good starter” but notes that even it will still need to be “reviewed and updated on a regular basis”.
But if I don’t give my life over to Facebook and Google (they have them anyway), who should I give them to?
A Way Out: Internet of Things???
With the number of connected devices set to top 11 billion – and that’s not including computers and phones – in 2018, the Internet of Things will undoubtedly continue to be a hot topic.
The internet of things connects objects to networks and exploits the data that is generated. Most of this information is machine-to-machine. For example, a Boeing 777 may generate 20 terabytes of data per engine per hour. Most of the “things” seen as being part of the internet of things are focused on supply chains and machine & system performance, not on consumers right now, but this will change.
At its core, IoT is simple: it’s about connecting devices over the internet, letting them talk to us, applications, and each other. The popular, if silly, example is the smart fridge: what if your fridge could tell you it was out of milk, texting you if its internal cameras saw there was none left, or that the carton was past its use-by date? You see, that is a fridge to die for, not Facebook, though they both begin with ‘F’!
Where it’s most common, in Britain at least, is home heating and energy use – partially because the government is pushing energy companies to roll out smart meters (although it has been questioned whether it can be delivered on schedule). They have smart functions that let you turn on heating remotely, set it to turn down the temperature if it’s a sunny day, or even turn off when there’s no-one home. Some can tell the latter with motion-sensing cameras, or simply by seeing that your smartphone (and therefore you) has left the premises.
IoT is more than smart homes and connected appliances, however. It scales up to include smart cities – think of connected traffic signals that monitor utility use, or smart bins that signal when they need to be emptied – and industry, with connected sensors for everything from tracking parts to monitoring crops. Just think of living a Sci-fi novel on Earth.
By 2020, it’s claimed that up to 100 billion devices will be connected to private networks or the internet. The data this creates is crunched by secret algorithms analysing how machines and systems work, how economies function and, increasingly, how humans live.
Unlike those enthusiastic and well-rewarded Scandinavian programmers, you and I don’t generally opt into the internet of things. The “trade-off” of consumers sacrificing privacy for convenience or lower prices is history.
How will the internet of things affect business and work?
This all depends on your industry: manufacturing is perhaps the furthest ahead in terms of IoT, as it’s useful for organising tools, machines and people, and tracking where they are. Farmers have also been turning to connected sensors to monitor both crops and cattle, in the hopes of boosting production, efficiency and monitoring the health of their herds.
We can’t count the examples, and all we can predict is that connected devices will likely creep into most businesses, just the way computers and the web have. When the efficiencies are with tools or plants, it’s easy to appreciate the potential benefit, but when it’s office workers who are being squeezed for more productivity, it could take on a bit of a dystopian shade.
Is IoT real or Utopia?
No matter where it is or what we call it, IoT is real – but what it will look like in the future is something even Google can’t answer.