There are twin pillars harvesting your personal data for massive profits: Google and Facebook. If one of them wants you to know it is very definitely not evil, where does that leave the other one? You are very likely to learn one or two uncomfortable truths.
The problem with Facebook is that the founder is an utterly unlikeable ass. The problem with Google is that I can’t even tell you who founded it without, ah, referring to Google. Compare them to Apple, a company that everyone knows who started it. Whatever you think of their product, their founder was a hipster before the term existed, an egotistical maniac it is impossible not to admire, at least from afar.
Funny thing about not being evil? Steve Jobs described that particular Google motto, since replaced, in his typically concise poetry: “bullshit.” And it is, or was. But what is Facebook’s motto? It’s too dull to repeat, but it boils down to this: nothing about you is sacred; you are the product.
Not content with selling such hyper-targeted ads to anyone who will buy them, including the Brexit referendum campaign here and the Trump campaign in the US, Facebook needs to continue to grow. Did you know they own WhatsApp and Instagram? I’ve already ditched Instagram and am hoping to move off WhatsApp soon. It’s not just that Facebook has such personal information about you inside the Facebook software. I can almost live with that. Now they are mining your offline information too, and using key pieces of data, like your email address and phone number, to link the two things together. They don’t just know where you went on holiday, they have your credit card transactions. They know what you paid, to who and when, how you got there, and how many people you went with.
None of this is bad on the face of it. It’s mildly cloaked so only the very determined personal vendetta merchant would actually be able to determine who the real person is. That person being a 28-year-old singleton who went to Torremolinos for two weeks last June with his dog, and returned with a broken arm, married to a Spanish waitress with a liking for hard drink. The thing is, nobody told us they do this. Even if you read the terms and conditions, which you probably can’t even find, you won’t really find this spelled out. It’s all underhand, sly stuff and the bottom line is that Zuckerberg is nothing more than a rich but friendless streak of cold piss.
It took the death of Steve Jobs for Aaron Sorkin to write a movie about him. He was intensely private, and seemed a little out of sorts on the big stage. Zuckerberg, by contrast, seemed to be almost dying to be given the same treatment. He looks like a spoiled kid, the one who didn’t get invited to the right parties. Nothing wrong with that kid, we’ve all been there at some point, but we didn’t have to create the world’s most invasive, sinister and downright creepy computer software, did we?
For me, it’s not that they want to know all about us just to advertise to us. That’s still okay with me. I’m conscious of the deal I am making. I can live with it. It’s that they specifically design their phone apps to harvest way too much data, data that you’re barely even aware they harvest, and then they specifically design the app to be as addictive as it possibly can be so that you will share even more. The Zuck knows all about psychology, because he started with his own, and studied it at college. Status, who is up, who is down, who is fun or rich or whatever, is what drives society. But Facebook is not society. It is the gritty used up grounds made to brew it. It is the simplified, algorithmized version of it that can be coded up by kids. It is a very, very distant tenth best to doing absolutely anything at all in the real world, even taking a dump. At least taking a dump makes you lighter. It’s like being friends with a damaged robot.
We are about to see a backlash against our phones, or at least, our phones in their present form. Did you know that anyone with access to a phone company can record both ends of all your phone calls knowing just your phone number? Former FBI Director Comey does. They use that little trick all the time. It works anywhere in the world, no matter the network or the country. So sure, you could use WhatsApp, but not for those crucial calls from the bank or the doctor. They’re not going to use WhatsApp, with its built-in encryption. But hey, only the content of the call is encrypted. Facebook, via WhatsApp, still knows who called you at 09:43 last Wednesday morning. It’s the same person who calls every Wednesday, and they know where that person lives, how much they earn, and how many ex-wives he has. If you’re using Facebook Messenger to manage your SMS text messages, then they know all the content of all your texts too. And if your friends also use it, they have both ends of all of your text conversations.
This stuff will become more widely known. Probably first in Europe, where the regulators are coming faster than the speed of night. They’re going to shut down the worst of it, but it will take years, maybe a decade. And by then there will be a new way to spy on you, invented by the next scroaty disillusioned grease gibbon.
This article was inspired by an excellent piece in the London Review of Books by John Lanchester.