Sunday 11 December 2016

A day in the life: what happens when you log on to Facebook

How your 'likes' are mined in Arctic Circle and then rerouted to US snoops

Published 11/10/2015 | 02:30

Facebook offices
Facebook offices

The cloud… sounds lovely and fluffy, doesn't it? Similarly, the smartphone… the word just radiates positive vibes with clever tech that keeps you in touch, right? Likewise, the browser… that can only mean relaxation, a leisurely journey of mind, surely?

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Nothing at all threatening or sinister about those concepts - unless you're Edward Snowden. The former CIA employee's distrust of governments and corporations stems from his inside knowledge about the sheer insecurity of all our online activities.

In a BBC interview this week, Snowden made the astonishing claim that US and UK spy agencies can easily hack into every last byte of our smartphones - turning them on if they're off and listening secretly via the microphone. All they need do is send you a silent text message that you never even know you received.

This trampling of civil liberties may not bother some people - the spies target only criminals and not ordinary folk like you, right? But, regrettably, we voluntarily leak a similar barrage of personal data when we engage with the cloud, the smartphone and the browser.

The tech giants thrive on data - using the past habits you willingly revealed to better target future products and advertising. Some trade-offs you may find benign, some maybe not. On a typical morning, many of us in Ireland log on to Facebook on our smartphones, revealing private thoughts and unwittingly building a psychological profile via our 'likes'.

The data travels first to Lulea, Facebook's European data centre on the edge of the Arctic Circle in Sweden.

But it's quickly replicated via the cloud to Facebook servers in California, Oregon and South Carolina. That's where US spy agencies such as the NSA can mine your data - if they can be bothered.

By lunchtime, maybe you're anxious about an illness and launch a series of searches in your web browser for diagnosis and treatment. Such activity can be tracked by browser 'cookies' and, if the search engine so chooses, matched with ads for unlicensed drug merchants. Only scruples stand in the way of such monitoring and gullible web-users could be tempted to take a punt on potentially harmful medicines.

What if your search history was sold on to a health insurance company? It might decide to refuse cover based on your interest in various ailments.

That's an extreme and unlikely example but it demonstrates that everything you type into a web browser is at the mercy of woolly privacy agreements that we never bother to read.

On the way home from work, boredom leads you fire up Snapchat on your phone. After gurning at the camera and finding an unflattering pose, you send it on to a bunch of friends for kicks.

Snapchat prides itself on the supposed ephemeral nature of its messages, known as "snaps". Once viewed by the recipient, they're gone forever, it says.

But several workarounds exist, from screen-shotting the message to downloading apps that purport to save snaps forever. Think of that before putting yourself in a compromising situation.

Realising the publicity value of resisting the tech trend for minimal privacy, Apple has positioned itself as the anti-Google, a company whose billions depend on users volunteering their information.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said in June: "You might like these so-called free services, but we don't think they're worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data-mined and sold off for God knows what advertising purpose. And we think some day, customers will see this for what it is."

Cook may overplay the individual value of the mundane stream of information we all generate every day. But his point is well made - as far as corporations are concerned, when the product is free, you become the product.

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