We’ve given an eye-wateringly broad “Snoopers’ Charter” to big corporations

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As Lib Dems we have campaigned long and hard for curbs on the government’s power to snoop on our internet data.

Yet, most of us (not all) have personally given an eye-wateringly broad “Snoopers’ Charter” to big corporations – namely Facebook and Google.

I know, I have checked on my data held by Facebook and Google. You can do it too. Facebook had all my photos, posts, friends etc etc going back to February 2007. The data was 354 megabytes in size. That’s equivalent to 71 copies of the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Google is in another league altogether. They hold of 28 gigabytes of my data. That’s equivalent to the data on 28 large lorries stuffed full of books. 28 of them! I am still downloading the data they hold for me. It has taken me two days just to download a tenth of it. They had records of search terms which I used in 2007.

The interesting thing is that, in this situation, there is only one person to blame. Me. (Or you, if you have done the same – us). I am responsible for handing over my data to Facebook and Google. I confirmed that I read their terms and conditions, I hit “yes” to agree to endless handovers of contacts and personal details.

OK, it is absolutely true that Google and Facebook have some culpability for basing their business models on monetizing vast tracts of our data, based partly on the average person’s gullibility.

(A lot of this has been made possible by cheaper computer storage hardware. I have been inside several Data Centres. Most people don’t know they exist. They are usually very nondescript buildings, with very little signage, in very humdrum areas. Inside they have rows and rows and rows of storage capacity. This advance in miniaturised data storage underpins the revolution in corporately-held personal data. It is comparatively cheap, nowadays, for corporations to use acres and acres of data storage machines to store mind-boggling amounts of our data. Such a revolution is well beyond our imagination, so therefore it is a surprise to most people that it has happened.)

So, it is right that Facebook and Google are facing renewed scrutiny.

But it starts with you and me. If you have a Facebook or Google account, then download your data which they hold. Have a look at it. It is guaranteed to make your hair stand on end.

Once you have done that, you might like to join me in deleting your Facebook account. (I am still working on Google). That is the only real way to delete the data Facebook hold for you. What you can then do is leave it a few weeks then, if you wish, set up a new Facebook acocunt, but this time do it with your eyes wide open, aware of the consequences and the settings which allow you to make big decisions about your data.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is currently taking a break from his role as one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Hmmm, I downloaded my FaceBook data and there was certainly lots of it, but nothing that I have a problem with being public, let alone making my hair stand on end.

    I’ll be keeping my FB profile: I’d far rather give them data than pay a subscription for a service that I find valuable.

    Ultimately it’s up to you: if you have data you don’t want to share, then either don’t share it or don’t use FB/Google. But just because they have lots of data doesn’t mean it’s inherently a “bad thing”.

  • Please don’t equate mass Government snooping with what google and facebook do. You can avoid facebook and google if you choose to (and I do), and their data collection and profiling is the price you pay to use their “free” services.

    The Government’s data interception and retention are more insidious and difficult to avoid. But far from impossible to avoid, meaning that the overwhelming majority of the data collected will be from innocent citizens.

  • Paul – if you feel there’s a lack of awareness among FB users, then that’s an argument for better education around that But not for some arbitrary time limit on data retention.

    Frankly, not only do I not care that FB has data on me going back to 2007, in fact I rather welcome it. As a one-time historian, I found it fascinating trawling through my old records and it would be a fabulous resource going forward. I’d be horrified if they wiped my old data, in the same way as I’d be up in arms if hotmail wiped my old email archive.

    And if it means adverts are better targeted at me, that can only be a good thing (I don’t get adverts for the Daily Mail or Weatherspoons, for example).

    The Liberal approach is surely to favour education over prohibition or excess regulation.

  • Nonconformistradical 30th Mar '18 - 10:17am

    “You can avoid facebook and google if you choose to (and I do), and their data collection and profiling is the price you pay to use their “free” services.”

    Exactly. Using these services means you are the product which they sell to advertisers.

  • William Fowler 30th Mar '18 - 12:26pm

    Easy enough to give out disinformation when using FB etc and their power is nothing compared to what the UK govn gets up to. For instance, councils now have access to the work and pensions database to check against voter registration details (this is done without notification and you are only asked for more details when there is a mismatch) which is fine in theory but full name, address, DOB AND NI no are now included on the voters’ register which is still searchable for a small fee on the internet even if you opt out of the open register. This happened a few years ago and coincided with a large increase in ID theft. There is something called the anonymous register that VIPs and MP’s can get on and that is only accessible by the police etc, normal people have to get a court order before they can get on it! The normal voter’s register is used for credit checks so it will have an effect if people opted for the anonymous register but they should at least have that option given the mess the govn has made of this and the disturbing way councils threaten criminal charges if you don’t give them the info they want.

  • Phil Beesley 30th Mar '18 - 1:01pm

    I’ll give a thumbs up to Paul Walter’s appropriate appropriation of Douglas Adams’ words.

    Many IT professionals understand how difficult it is to educate people about data security. Smart people don’t always twig how scammers operate — and it is not sufficient to argue that every scam includes bad grammar etc. Scams are achieved in many different ways. There’s always a limit to how much “formal education” works.

    If you are designing IT systems, you might even give up on the idea of educating people about data security. You might put your efforts into building things which work — e.g. eliminating ad hoc workarounds which create vulnerabilities.

    Meanwhile companies like Facebook intentionally build systems so that users expose data. Social media companies rely on human instinct, about how people open up about themselves.

    Dominic: “Hmmm, I downloaded my FaceBook data and there was certainly lots of it, but nothing that I have a problem with being public, let alone making my hair stand on end.”

    Jeremy Clarkson deliberately revealed some personal data — reasonably in my opinion, at the time — with the expectation that nobody could use it to hack his bank account. He was wrong. He did not expect the data itself to be sufficient, but mixed in with data from other sources, it was enough to fool a bank. We could argue about how the bank went wrong — were they sufficiently educated? — but there’ll be factors which we miss.

    We can never perceive how personal data exposed to Facebook or Google might be shared with advertising partners — unless limits of our minds are infinite. We don’t have a clue how advertising partners — check your browsing history to see how much is exposed to companies that you have never heard of — use data.

  • Paul – there are alternatives of course. The Lib Dems could take a lead here and stop using facebook for party business – how many “private” facebook groups do the national and all the local parties have? The party could encourage the use of alternatives like diaspora or riot, at least for internal party communication.

    Beyond that, there are 2 problems – one is the extent which anyone clicking through the terms and conditions of any service without reading it first is giving informed consent, and the other is the network effect that people are naturally drawn to the service that all their friends and family use (hence the monopoly situation with facebook).

  • Nonconformistradical 30th Mar '18 - 6:40pm

    Bruce Schneier on the topic:-

    “Surveillance capitalism drives much of the internet. It’s behind most of the “free” services, and many of the paid ones as well. Its goal is psychological manipulation, in the form of personalized advertising to persuade you to buy something or do something…”

    No such thing as a free lunch!

  • Ronald Murray 31st Mar '18 - 8:39am

    After the public stramash over Facebook I downloaded my data held by them. Much as I expected groups and posts. Then came films you have watched this gave me much amusement listed were programmes such as Dixon of Dock Green and films that I never watched or have even referred to since going on the internet over thirty years ago. I was an Intelligence Corps soldier we would have given this duff information a grading of F6 the lowest. I was pleased to say none of the right wing anti islamic rubbish an aquaintance used to send me he is unfriended.
    It was excellent someone referred to the Investigatory Powers act which allows councils and other non law enforcement agencies to spy on you. A national disgrace.

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