Free Service? No, You Are the Product


A longer read than usual. It would be prudent to begin by saying that there is an obvious distinction between the public and private sector here. In the public sector, it is not profit but the efficiency and benefit of the service to the public that is the main goal. Things like public transport, medical care, education, etc. are all areas that should belong to, and remain invested in by, the public as those services are critical to the progression of society. Thus making them free, or at least subsidised to some extent, is worthwhile in the long term. Private enterprise, however, cannot, by definition, offer “free” services – there must always be a profit, and therefore a price to consumers. Clive Palmer also features here, because of course the shit “meme lord” has made the news again.

This topic should be a given for anyone who has taken even a mild interest in their own privacy, with endless revelations of new privacy concerns and the rampant abuse of information that is already being collected. This is more alarming when it comes to government surveillance, such as what was revealed by Edward Snowden about the extent of the NSA (US) and GCHQ (UK) operations. Here, I want to focus mainly on the collection of data by private entities, like social media, browsers like Google, mobile applications, etc. and why it should spark some trepidation.

A couple of years ago, as part of my IT degree, I did a unit on information security that talked about the theory behind how information was kept secure and why. Overall it did little to delve into violations or ethical issues, but one assessment piece required us to look in depth at the privacy policy and terms and conditions of whichever company we wished. Naturally, Facebook and its subsidiaries, like Messenger and WhatsApp, was a goldmine just waiting to be explored. But while the fine print and text hidden behind pages of legalities and terms is shocking there, it is fairly commonplace.

I use my phone for very little – communicating with family and friends, as an alarm if I ever have the need, for public transport updates, and for news. A total of 3 or 4 applications is all I need. The average user, in 2017, used 9 per day and up to 30 over a month. That number has no doubt risen considerably throughout the last year. The majority of these, meaning greatest number of downloads, most users, and most time spent on them, are social media apps, namely Facebook and Messenger. So many of these free applications, such as Facebook and Chrome (two that I have) have extensive data collection operations, not only on mobile devices but on computers as well. I can’t remember where I saw it, but there was a study done as early as 2001-2003 or so that could create profiles of people based on their online activity. They were able to predict, with startling accuracy, a number of features (like gender and age group) and interests with a relatively limited amount of information.

Explode that with the advent of social media and smart devices, and suddenly everyone’s information is free game. Facebook’s privacy policy states that by having Messenger on my phone that it has access to pretty much everything on there – I have no illusions that selecting ‘No’ for camera and microphone access actually denies it to them – and that this information can be used however they see fit. In most cases, that means sold to undisclosed third parties, most of which would be companies wishing to sell advertising. The same applies with any other free application, like Chrome, and also applies, obviously, to computers as well. I’ll give some examples of advertising I’ve encountered and list why I believe I received that specific one, and I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it is just coincidence or if my reasoning makes sense.

  • I recently changed my phone plan to something much cheaper than it was. I now receive ads for mobile plans with Think Mobile and Belong, pushing high data offers.
  • A friend of mine has been searching for a new car after being in a collision, and I assisted them in looking up potential models and makes. There has been a noticeable increase in the number of Facebook Marketplace ads for vehicles, notably Holden as one of the cars we looked at was a Holden.
  • A sushi restaurant was recommended to me in conversation – not online at all – and since then I have had ads specifically for that store near my location.
  • During a conversation with some friends from university, we talked about what brand of vehicle ambulances were. I looked it up, and not a day later did I have ads not for cars, but medical and paramedic degrees from another university. This can be funny at times though, as I have been at QUT for a few years now but UQ and Griffith are persistent.
  • I am a huge fan of World of Warcraft, and while I drink alcohol rarely, I occasionally make jokes about my love of spirits. The connection? This one may be far-fetched but was the most interesting incident. There is a character in the game called Bwonsamdi, the Loa of Death in game, but based on the real Loa of Death Baron Samedi in Haitian voodoo. Would it be a stretch to suggest that once I looked up that character, just to read up the in game lore, and then received ads for Baron Samedi (brand) spiced rum? Was it my search for lore, chats with friends about alcohol, or perhaps a mix of both that led to this specific brand? Who knows, but Google probably does.

Some of these are obvious, others not so much, but the question isn’t whether the advertising I get matches things I would be interested in (which, for me anyway, is none of them particularly). The worry is the fact that I am getting any advertising at all based on my private information and conversations. Zuckerberg, in the bizarre Senate hearings in the US a while back, was at pains to try and explain that no human had access to any of the private messages. Perhaps that is true, and Facebook themselves don’t spy on us (pfft, Snowden also revealed such unethical behaviour took place in the NSA, to think Facebook employees don’t also abuse this is moronic), but at the very least an algorithm picks this information up. Once it is collected it is sold, and while there is no ‘identifying information’ to connect you specifically with it, it is as simple as joining a few dots together and there is a full blown profile of you in every advertiser’s database somewhere.

Unless one were to go off the grid, it is difficult to try and escape this Orwellian web. Even people who do not use social media, or indeed rarely use Google, have a “shadow” profile that, should they begin to use it, will already have this information in place and ready to launch advertisements on the newcomer.

One case, somewhat different to the above, is that of Clive Palmer now, leading to the elections here in Australia. What does he have to do with privacy concerns? Well apparently he has an app – of course he does – which is free to download. The ABC reported on it, saying it was a satirical game that saw Palmer taking down his political opponents, much like his advertising campaigns try to do as well, with laughably low success. If anyone is interested in taking a look (I’m not), it is called The Humble Meme Merchant by Emu War Games.

What has brought it to the spotlight, however, isn’t just that it’s the next stage in a wild ride being taken by a failed businessman and politician; it’s the fact that he has found a loophole regarding privacy laws and access to voter data. Things like names, locations and contacts are all able to be collected, although the game’s developer has denied it has actually collected anything and has since removed such permissions entirely. The ABC article also mentions what I first thought when I saw the headline – political parties already collect data to some extent. The difference is, this is (I am almost reluctant to give Palmer indirect credit) giving publicity to the issue of voter privacy. This app is a rather transparent giveaway that his party was merely after peoples’ data, but most techniques used by our parties (including the Coalition parties, Labor, and the Greens) are not as transparent. The Greens, being the promoters of individual’s rights to privacy, is a disheartening one to list, but all parties should be more honest about what data they collect and what it is used for. More importantly, one might add, how much is it costing the Australian taxpayer to buy this software? A necessary budget choice, I’m sure Morrison would say, just as necessary as buying stolen water back from cotton farmers that already belonged to us.

So remember, if a product is free, whether it is social media or the digital world of Australia’s greatest meme, it is not the product – you, and your information, are.


Liked this? Read The Age of “Free” Information: Is It Falling, Or Did It Never Exist?

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