Social media site Facebook must now, according to the New York Times, “respect the privacy wishes of its users.” According to Somini Sengupta of the Times, the federal government has ordered regular privacy audits for the popular website, which boasts over 800 million members. Central to the order from the Federal Trade Commission is the accusation that Facebook made public information that its users specifically set as private.
Facebook is notorious among social media for frequently changing its interface, its terms of service and its privacy policies with little or no notice. The running joke for Facebook users has been, for quite some time now, “Don’t like the terms of service or the layout? Wait five minutes. They’ll change.”
Lost on many users, who have come to take the immensely well-trafficked site for granted, is that Facebook is a private service (and free to use). Mark Zuckerberg and his staff are under no obligation to provide you with a social networking outlet, nor are they required to offer a layout or even privacy terms you find agreeable. (They are, however, legally obligated to say what they mean and do what they say.)
Forbes‘ Robert Hof writes that Facebook will now “have to be more careful about introducing new features that use people’s information in ways that make them uncomfortable.” He goes on to explain that “Facebook’s value proposition to advertisers is precisely that it can offer more data on its users. … It’s that kind of data that has advertisers salivating about the opportunities to market on Facbook in more compelling ways.”
We have become so accustomed to the thought that legions of faceless hackers, identity thieves and other criminals want our personal details that we’ve started seeing invasive attempts to plunder our private information behind every request for data. While there are plenty of legitimate threats to your privacy and credit rating online and in real life, the majority of the data collected about you is collected for one and only one reason. This reason drives most if not all of Facebook’s many changes and is the activating force behind countless other entities amassing virtual dossiers on you, your purchases and your preferences.
People want to sell you stuff.
That’s it. It’s no more sinister than that. When a commercial entity tries to track where you go, what you view and how you buy, it isn’t because some evil overlord in a mountain fortress somewhere wants to tell the world that you visited eBay, Amazon and then a porn site. It’s because that commercial entity wants to market to you, and the more it knows about you, the better able it is to offer you things that you’ll actually want to buy.
This is exactly the same concept behind “profiling” in law enforcement and security scenarios, and it works for the same reason. To “profile” is to assign finite resources according to the greatest probability of scoring a “hit.” When fighting terrorism, this means focusing greater scrutiny on demographic groups more statistically likely to be terrorists. When selling body wash and Blu-ray players, this means offering your product only to those people who might actually consider spending money on it.
These facts, by themselves, do not absolve business or government entities of responsibility for their actions, nor do they excuse failures to abide by terms of service or blatant lies about the privacy of the data collected. They do, however, offer us valuable perspective. They can rein in our knee-jerk fear and paranoia in the face of every attempt to profile our commercial habits and tendencies.
Take, for example, the recent uproar over shopping malls tracking shoppers by identifying their wireless phones. The average consumer need only hear the headline before cries of “Big Brother! Big Brother!” begin to echo. Who wouldn’t be upset by the idea of a shopping mall spying on its customers, invading their cell phones and peering over their shoulders as they shop?
The only problem is that this isn’t what’s happening. To grossly oversimplify (while also taking liberties with the terminology), your wireless phone will tell anyone who asks its unique identifying number. This is how your wireless provider’s network tracks you and keeps you connected to the very network you’re using voluntarily. Technology that records this identifying number and then tracks the phone isn’t doing anything your phone company doesn’t already do. (If you think your phone carrier can’t locate you, how do you figure they know when you’re “roaming” and when you aren’t, insofar as that concept even still applies to today’s mobile networks?)
In this case, the personal data on your phone isn’t being attacked. Instead, the mall is using that number to identify you arbitrarily as, say, “Shopper 1331QX25″ and then recording where you go in the mall. It knows nothing about you; it only knows that an unidentified individual took such-and-such path and went to this-and-such stores. The data are valuable only to the extent that they help store and mall owners determine foot traffic and – drumroll please – how to use that to better sell things to more people.
An elaborate web of laws, rules and regulations already covers the use and distribution of your personal data. If you volunteer information about yourself, especially online, this can and will be collected and used. In all cases, your information can be misused, too, and when that information is collected or disseminated under false pretenses, those responsible should be held accountable. The rest of the time, demographic and commercial data about you, whether shared by you or collected by observing you in some way, is simply smart advertising.
It’s time we stopped being afraid of informed commercial efforts. Capitalism is commerce. Socialism is not. If we are to stand for liberty and capitalism against Obama and the “Occupy” Marxists, we need to stop vilifying business interests for trying to sell us things.
The business of America is business – and the handmaiden of commerce is marketing.