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    Please Listen, Online Privacy Is A Myth

    May 2019

    People concerned about privacy often try to be “careful” online. They stay off social media, or if they are on it, they post cautiously. They don’t share information about their religious beliefs, personal life, health status, or political views. By doing so, they think they are protecting their privacy.

    But what they don’t realize is that they are wrong. Because of technological advances and the sheer amount of data now available about billions of people, discretion no longer suffices to protect your privacy. Computer algorithms and network analyses can now infer, with a sufficiently high degree of accuracy, a wide range of things about you that you may have never disclosed, including your moods, your political beliefs, your sexual orientation and your health.

    Please do understand, that there is no longer such a thing as individually “opting out” of our privacy – compromised world.

    The basic idea of data inference is not new. Magazine subscriber lists for example have long been purchased by retailers, charities and politicians because they provide useful hints about people’s views. A subscriber to the Wall Street Journal for example is more likely to be a Republican voter than is a subscriber to The Nation and so on.

    But today’s technology works at a far higher level. Consider an example involving Facebook. In 2017, the newspaper The Australian published an article based on a leak document from Facebook, revealing that the company had told advertisers that it could predict when younger users, including teenagers, were feeling “insecure”, “worthless” or otherwise in need of a “confidence boost”. Facebook was apparently able to draw these inferences by monitoring photos, posts and other social media data. But there is a lot more to worry, as Facebook denied letting advertisers target people base on those characteristics, but it is certainly true that Facebook has that capacity. So please wake up, as academic researchers demonstrated last year that they were able to predict depression in Facebook users by analyzing their social media data – and they had access to far less data than Facebook does. Even if Facebook does not now market its ability to glean your present or future mental health from your social media activity, the fact that it – and any number of other, less visible actors – can do this should worry you.

    It is worth stressing that today’s computational inference does not merely check to see if Facebook users posted phrases like “ I’m depressed ” or “ I feel terrible “. The technology is far more sophisticated than that: Machine – learning algorithms are fed huge amounts of data, and the computer program itself categorizes who is more likely to become depressed.

    Please consider another example. In 2017, academic researchers, armed with data from more than 40,000 Instagram photos, used machine – learning tools to accurately identify signs of depression in a group of 166 Instagram users.

    Their computer models turned out to be better predictors of depression than humans who were asked to rate whether photos were happy or sad and so forth.

    Used for honorable purposes, computational inference can be a wonderful thing. Predicting depression before the onset of clinical symptoms would be a boom for public health, which is why academics are researching these tools; they dream of early screening and prevention.

    But these tools for me are worrisome. Few people posting photos on Instagram are aware that they may be revealing their mental health status to anyone with the right computational power. Please understand that computational inference can also be a tool of social control.

    Such tools are being marketed for use in hiring employees, for detecting shoppers’ moods and predicting criminal behavior. Unless they are properly regulated, in the near future we could be hired, fired, granted or denied insurance, accepted to or rejected from college, rented housing and extended or denied credit based on facts that are inferred about us. This is in my opinion worrisome enough when it involves inferences. But because computational inference is a statistical technique, it also often gets thing wrong – and it is hard, and perhaps impossible, to pinpoint the source of the error, for these algorithms offer little to no insights into how they operate. What happens when someone is denied a job on the basis of an inference that we aren’t even sure is correct?

    Another troubling example of inference involves your phone number. It is increasingly an identifier that works like a Social Security number – it is unique to you. Even if you have stayed off Facebook and other social media, your phone number is almost certainly in many other people’s contact lists on their phones. If people use Facebook – or Instagram or WhatsApp – they have been prompted to upload their contacts to help find their “friends”, which many people do.

    Once your number surfaces in a few uploads, Facebook can place you in a social network, which helps it infer things about you since we tend to resemble the people in our social set. Facebook for your information even keeps “shadow” profiles of non-users and deploys “tracking pixels” situated all over the web – not just on Facebook – that transmit information about your behavior to the company.

    Last year, an investigation led by senator Ron Wyden, revealed that in the US Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T were selling people’s real-time location data. An investigative report last year by the New York Times also showed that weather apps, including The Weather Channel, AccuWeather and Weather Bug were selling their users’ location data. This kind of data isn’t useful just for tracking you but also for inferring things about you. What were you doing at a cancer clinic? Journalist Kashmir Hill has reported on cases in which Facebook suggested to a psychiatrist’s patients that they were potential “Facebook friends”, suggested that people “friend” the person with whom their spouse was having an affair and outed prostitutes’ real identities to their clients. Please understand that we don’t want corporations or even governments to make such connections, let alone exploit this to “grow” their platform.

    So, what is to be done? In my opinion, designing phones and other devices to be more privacy-protected would be a great start, and government regulation of the collection and flow of data would help slow things down. But this is of course not the complete solution. We also need to start passing laws that directly regulate the use of computational inference: What will we allow to be inferred, and under what conditions, and subject to what kinds of accountability, disclosure, controls and penalties for misuse?

    Until we have good answers to these questions, you can expect others to continue to know more and more about you – no matter how discreet you may have been.