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Choosing Your Big Brother


by Russell Bennett, UC Insights

April, 2013

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Nearly 30 years after 1984, who would have thought that we would have not only one Big Brother, but many; and that we would get to choose which one we liked best?  This article isn’t about a depressing novel that you probably had to grind through at school or college, nor is it about politics.  I am sticking to my usual theme of communications and am referring instead to the launch of ‘Facebook Home’.  (Even the name sounds reassuring – I am sure that they also considered ‘sofa’, ‘snuggy’ and ‘teddy’.)

At the time of writing, two days after the Facebook announcement of ‘Home’, the FB stock price has jumped $2, or nearly 8%.   Put another way, the company is now worth nearly $5Bn more than it was before the long rumored announcement.

That is a pretty neat gain considering that this new product is set at the low, low price of $0.00.  Maybe the investors are applauding the enhanced opportunity for FB to serve up ads, or maybe that Google took a poke in the eye because ‘Home’ over-rides the Android user experience.  It is interesting to note that GOOG dropped in value by $6.5Bn in the same time period: almost as if some of the Google market cap was being magically transferred to FB.  So one ‘free product’ trumping another ‘free product’ appears to have a 10-digit zero-sum effect.

Weird huh?  Not really.

As the owner and creator of a web site, I have all the major market-share browsers on my desktop.  Pretty much every time I launch any one of them, it says "XYZ is not your default browser – would you like to make XYZ your default?"  When I visit a search engine page, it asks me to: “Please log in for a better experience!”  When searching for an address on my mobile phone, the map app (another area of fierce competition for $0 revenue) asks if it can use my current location.  I frequently get email from various online service providers stating: “Dear user, we miss you, please come back!”  Increasingly often, when reading a web page on my phone, the page prompts me to “Download the mobile app for a better experience!

Of course, the better experience isn’t ours, it’s theirs.  We can all easily guess that ‘better experience’ is in their ability to capture data on our interests, behavior, preferences, purchases or even movements; all of which is tied to our identity.   But having pinned our identity to some anonymous log-in credentials, they need to capture demographic data to make it useful – but then you will recall that you created a profile when you first used the service.  Of course, you have many online profiles – some of which may not even use the same alias (but most probably do). But in order to avoid having to remember so many online passwords, you are offered the option of logging in with your Facebook / Google / LinkedIn / Twitter / whatever ID.  Which is very convenient…for them, because now it is much easier to aggregate all your online demographic data into a single profile.

But you are safe, because the company in question has a privacy policy, which you have signed (more than once) having read all 35 screens of turgid ‘legalese’ in 8 point font, noting everything that changed since last time and having first consulted your attorney (…right?)  In general, these privacy policies promise not to share your data; so why then is a web site that I didn’t log into showing me ads for hotels in a city that I was investigating on a completely different site, only yesterday?  (That is a rhetorical question, btw.)

The Facebook site for 'Home' lays out its privacy policy using the kind of tone and language that your mom probably used when explaining why you should stay away from the hot stove.  But just what, exactly, is so invasive about a Facebook phone?  The obvious things it can do include recording:

  • Your relationships and activities.  Of course, they were always able to do that.

    • “We also put together data from the information we already have about you and your friends.”

  • Where you have been.  You have probably had the regular Facebook app on your phone for ages, so that isn’t new either.

    • “When we get your GPS location, we put it together with other location information we have about you (like your current city).”

  • It also has a movie camera; a microphone and an internet connection – the mind boggles at the implications of that, so I won’t go there.

However, the biggest difference between the Facebook website/mobile app and ‘Home’ is that the mobile platform allows Facebook to be ‘always on’ and in complete control of everything that you do on the phone, including using other apps.  The promotional video gives the game up straight away:

“We carry our phones wherever we go.  They are with us almost every second of the day.  We reach for them when we have a free moment, or we’re curious.  More than anything, we use our phones to connect with the people that we care about…From the moment you turn on your phone…And you can keep chatting from any app…”

But wait, there’s more.  Just a few weeks ago, Facebook acquired a company called Mixtent, which has developed ‘reputation’ technology.  In other words, they can use this technology to determine if you are a worthy person or not: for what purpose I can only imagine.  This isn’t to say that Facebook does not, in any case, share their data with other companies; their data use policy states that they do:

“Facebook Platform (or simply Platform) refers to the way we help you share your information with the games, applications, and websites you and your friends use.  Facebook Platform also lets you bring your friends with you, so you can connect with them off of Facebook.  In these two ways, Facebook Platform helps you make your experiences on the web more personalized and social.”

Note that an app that your friends use can, apparently, gain information about you.

Of course, we are not so naïve as to assume that this was all Facebook’s idea: this all started with supermarket loyalty cards over twenty years ago.  The supermarkets could already aggregate your purchases from a given shopping basket.  They could also aggregate your various shopping baskets via your credit card number, but they couldn’t link your shopping habits to your demographic data: so they came up with ‘loyalty cards’, i.e. the exchange of demographic data for discounts.  This enabled the birth of the data mining industry, which in turn produced marketing phenomena best described by the ‘beer and diapers’ anecdote.

The first to realize the incredible power of the mobile phone platform was Apple, followed by Microsoft, and then Google.  Google were even bold enough to give their mobile platform ‘for free’ to those companies who didn’t have the wherewithal to develop their own; only for many of those platform partners to realize that they were letting most of the valuable data slip thought their fingers to Google.  Clearly, Facebook was among those, but they have turned the tables on Google by replacing the parts of the code that connected with the Google platform with their own code that points the data to the Facebook platform.

So, all of this is Apple’s fault.  Which is ironic, because Apple has long characterized Microsoft as the evil one.   Going back to the year 1984, the Super Bowl ad that launched the Macintosh (directed by Ridley Scott) ‘borrowed heavily’ from Orwell’s book ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’: suggesting that people should reject totalitarianism and pervasive surveillance.  It is interesting to note that Apple’s market cap (at the time of writing) is more than the combined market cap of Google and Facebook.  But after all, Apple sells tangible goods, whereas Google and Facebook sell…what exactly?

The Facebook website for the Home service headlines with the comforting message: ‘Welcome Home’.  Exactly who is welcoming whom into whose home is not clear: perhaps ‘Mi casa es su casa’ would be more appropriate.  Last summer, I wrote an article which named Facebook (as well as Apple and Google) as a potential provider of global next-generation communications services.  I have to say that I was thinking more about their technological prowess as well as their existing network of users; I had not really thought through the privacy implications of such a venture.

Do you remember when you could ask the phone company not to list your name and number in the phone book?  That was back in 1984.


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