Tuesday 16 July 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Is your 13-year-old daughter selling her deepest secrets?'

If someone was paying your child to snoop on their phone, you would be concerned, says Brendan O'Connor, but what if it was a big company doing it?

DISTURBING TECH NEWS: Little girls are being targeted with images of self-harm and suicide porn. Stock image
DISTURBING TECH NEWS: Little girls are being targeted with images of self-harm and suicide porn. Stock image
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

I've been paying your 13-year-old daughter in Amazon vouchers for me to have unfettered access to her phone. I can see what is in every window or what is on the screen at any time. I can see what apps she uses and how much she uses them and what she does on them. Does that make you want to come around to my house and smash my face in? OK, I'm lying, - it wasn't me and it wasn't your 13-year-old daughter. It was Google, and it was other people's 13-year-old daughters. Does that make it OK?

We learnt last week that Facebook has been at it as well. Twenty dollars a month is its going rate in return for complete access to teenagers' phones - emails, internet browsing and even private messages in apps that aren't Facebook. Facebook will tell you it is not doing anything wrong. Yet the spying software had to be specially crafted to circumvent Apple's app store, because Apple had already banned a similar snooping app last year. Which suggests at least some level of subterfuge.

It's probably fair to say that when the other tech giants are taking exception to your snooping, you probably have a snooping problem. Then again, Apple is one of the few companies in this space whose business model isn't based on using people's data and it has been making a bit of a stand on customer privacy.

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You might argue that this is merely a strategy to sell €1,000 phones, but Tim Cook has been reasonably consistent here; attacking Facebook again last week over the new snooping app, he called privacy a fundamental human right. Apple has also hit back at Google for its snooping.

The strange thing about Facebook and Google enlisting kids to sell them their privacy is that it wasn't exactly front-page news. It's getting like boiled frog syndrome at this stage. If you plunged someone from the year 2000 into the world we live in now, they would be rightfully appalled. But because the heat has been slowly turned up on us over the years, we don't really notice how weird it has all got. We almost just take it for granted now.

And then sometimes, someone comes along and just lays it out. Let me give you some random factoids from Shoshana Zuboff, the author of a new book on what she calls The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

In the US, some breathing machines used by people with sleep apnoea secretly funnel data to the sleeper's health insurer. Some apps on your mobile phone record your location every two seconds to sell to third parties. The maker of a smart vacuum cleaner called Roomba says its share price increased after it proposed selling floor plans of customers' homes gleaned from the vacuum cleaners. In 2017, an internal report at Facebook suggested it could allow advertisers to pinpoint the exact moment when a teenager needs a confidence boost and is thus vulnerable to certain ads and cues. It's reminiscent of that line from Channel 4's chilling Brexit drama The Uncivil War, that "Facebook knows when you're falling out of love with your partner". That might seem fanciful, but Facebook has in the past boasted of knowing when people are falling in love. Which itself is reminiscent of the story of how an angry father went into a Target store in Minneapolis to berate them for sending his daughter promotions for maternity clothes and baby equipment when she was still in high school. The man subsequently rang Target to apologise because their algorithm had been correct and knew what the father didn't: the schoolgirl was indeed pregnant.

And on and on we sleepwalk into this. Many of us are now inviting helpful devices into our home that can potentially listen to everything we say. While these are marketed as personal assistants, their purpose, certainly in the case of Amazon's Alexa, is simple - to find out more about us so it can get us to buy more stuff, and to make it easier to buy that stuff from Amazon.

If the Government tried to put a listening device into our homes we'd all be freaking out. But somehow, we are willing to pay a private corporation to do the same thing. While trust in governments is hardly at an all-time high in the era of Brexit and Trump and €2bn hospitals, the notion that we trust these shadowy mega-corporations more than our politicians suggests a society that is not seeing clearly.

And as Shoshana Zuboff points out, even the rationale that we are willing to forego a certain amount of privacy in order to get tech products for free has gone out of the window now, too. It is true that we get Facebook and email and Google in return for our privacy. And recent surveys seem to suggest that people require somewhere in the region of $50-$100 (€44-€88) a month in order to forego Facebook, which suggests that's how much it is worth to them, and how much they would hypothetically pay for it.

But Zuboff points out that data mining is now a feature of most of the products we pay for as well - insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment and even education. It has practically become the norm that your innermost secrets will be filleted by these people and their algorithms, even when you are the paying customer. And still we mindlessly fill out the forms and tick 'agree' to the ironically named privacy policies on websites without even reading them. You will be familiar with the stunt by internet security company F-Security, where people agreed to a contract giving up their first-born child in order to get free wifi in a public area.

It almost reminds you of a dystopian novel, where the masses are kept in a compliant state by a constant diet of free dopamine hits, likes and clickbait stories and photos of women with their hair frozen on end - which was, for many, the stand-out image from the polar vortex in Midwest America last week. It is as if we have been infantilised by these corporations, these big brothers who know us better than we know ourselves.

And that's before we get to other recent disturbing tech news, like little girls being targeted with images of self-harm and suicide porn.

Sheryl Sandberg was in Ireland last week, giving us Facebook's by-now-familiar spiel about how they need to do better and they will do better. According to Sandberg: "When we were building Facebook, we were so focused on the good the platform can do, that we did not anticipate that, when you connect that many people around the world, there are real risks."

Really? They never thought of the consequences for human beings of all this? Were they really that naive? Or did they not want to go to the effort and expense that taking responsibility for their platform would involve? These people, the smartest people in the room, never imagined anyone might bully someone or spread hate or do anything else bad on their site?

We are trusting our darkest secrets and our children's privacy to a company that is at best naive or, to be charitable, is cutting corners for profit, or at worst is telling lies for as long as it can until it gets found out and then does a mea culpa and promises to do better next time. But the contrition only ever comes when they are caught.

Sometimes, you have to think this is the most important issue facing parents in the western world right now.

Anyway, on you swipe…

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