Thursday 19 April 2018

We're all outraged but are we willing to do anything?

Our technology editor on why we're happy to put up with mass surveillance on social media

Mass surveilance: Social media
Mass surveilance: Social media
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

When Edward Snowden revealed that US authorities were tapping our emails, Facebook posts and instant messages, I was genuinely outraged.

And yet I didn't quit a single social-media account. Nor did I switch over to privacy-boosting conduits such as Tor.

If anything, I continued to migrate over even more to online forms of communication, including Instagram, Whatsapp and - most recently - Snapchat.

This forces me to ask a basic question of myself: how real is my concern over privacy? For all of my gnashings over Prism, the NSA and online profiling by corporations, why does convenience and social connectedness seem to win out each time?

The statistics suggest I may not be alone in facing this quandary.

According to Ipsos MRBI, the number of people in Ireland with a Facebook account has not changed at all since the Snowden revelations. Ditto for Twitter and Instagram. Indeed, the only slight movement is upwards: more people now use Snapchat and Whatsapp than before.

So it appears that while a number of us care about privacy, it's not enough to stop us using any services that actually compromise our privacy.

If anything, this week's landmark judgment from the European Court of Justice brings this paradox even more to the fore. The court basically said that American authorities routinely violate European citizens' personal privacy through mass surveillance online. And it said that, because of that, we may have to take the bold measure of preventing personal data from our Facebook accounts (and from other online accounts) from getting onto US servers, where they'll be likely pilfered.

It all sounds worthy and conscientious. Except no one is stepping forward to actually pull the plug on Facebook data transfers (or those from any other big web company) from Europe to the US.

Once again, we say that we're concerned about privacy. Once again, we may not actually do anything about it. (To be clear, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner has been identified as the regulatory authority who may order such a "suspension" of data transfers. But that seems to be a fairly a momentous task to assign one small country's regulator.)

What complicates the search for an answer to this conundrum is that blaming it on a "generational divide" is beginning to hold less and less water.

Yes, there is still some truth to the narrative that those under 25 don't care about privacy in the same way that those over 25 do. Just take a look at Instagram: it's full of photos that might be considered revealing.

But this narrative is complicated by the advent of services such as Snapchat, which is easily the fastest-growing social service around. It's also very heavily skewed toward an under-25s demographic. Yet its defining characteristic is its ethereal basis. 'Snaps' (messages) can only be viewed once before they auto-delete. Similarly, 'stories' (short videos and photos posted for general viewing) have a life-time of just one day. There is little data collected on users for advertisers to construct ad profiles.

In other words, teenagers and other young people are flocking to a service precisely because it has stronger basic parameters around privacy than any of the others. And this is happening while us middle-aged folk pour out our thoughts, holiday destinations, purchases and family photos on Facebook's searchable permanent record. Still think that it's the carefree attitude of kids that's getting us into a privacy bind?

The truth might simply be that, like CCTV cameras on street corners, we appear willing to live with a certain degree of mass surveillance. We may not like it. But we don't seem willing to quit Facebook over it.

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