Bosses: want to know who’ll join the union? There’s an app for that!

Imagine an app that would tell bosses which of his workers was most likely to want to join a union. Leigh Phillips writes on the creepier side of new technologies

April 2, 2012 · 16 min read

When governments are using the economic crisis as an excuse to strip away what remains of the post-war welfare-state consensus, when the likelihood of runaway climate change threatens civilisation, when unending wars and the collapse of civil liberties have become just ‘the new normal’, is it really the time or the place to raise the admittedly on-the-face-of-it nutty slogan ‘Nationalise Facebook Now’?

Oh yes, comrades, it is.  Or at least something like it, because the irresolubility of all these issues is ultimately the product of a common problem all tangled up with how we approach the ol’ Facebook conundrum. Sceptical? I’m feeling you, but roll with me here for a minute.

On Friday, an article by John Brownlee on Cult of Mac, the Apple news website, shone a light on a decidedly creepy little app called ‘Girls Around Me’, a geolocation maps service that uses freely available data from Foursquare and Facebook to deliver a map of women who have recently checked into different nearby locations via Foursquare or been checked in by someone else via FB and who have publicly visible Facebook profiles of women.

Brownlee describes how someone might use what the Daily Mail accurately rechristened the ‘Let’s Stalk Women’ app. He uses it to look up a girl called ‘Zoe’ who has just checked in to a local watering hole called The Independent:

“Most of her information is visible, so I now know her full name. I can see at a glance that she’s single, that she is 24, that she went to Stoneham High School and Bunker Hill Community College, that she likes to travel, that her favorite book is Gone With The Wind and her favorite musician is Tori Amos, and that she’s a liberal. I can see the names of her family and friends. I can see her birthday.”

“Okay, so it looks like Zoe is my kind of girl. From her photo albums, I can see that she likes to party, and given the number of guys she takes photos with at bars and clubs at night, I can deduce that she’s frisky when she’s drunk, and her favorite drink is a frosty margarita. She appears to have recently been in Rome.”

“So now I know everything to know about Zoe. I know where she is. I know what she looks like, both clothed and mostly disrobed. I know her full name, her parents’ full names, her brother’s full name. I know what she likes to drink. I know where she went to school. I know what she likes and dislikes. All I need to do now is go down to the Independent, ask her if she remembers me from Stoneham High, ask her how her brother Mike is doing, buy her a frosty margarita, and start waxing eloquently about that beautiful summer I spent in Roma.”

The author used the app as an object lesson in the privacy issues relating to social networking and, in this case, geo-location mash-ups, that too few people pay very much attention to. By Saturday, Apple had pulled the app from the iTunes store and Foursquare had blocked Girls Around Me’s API access to their data.

The discussion around the subject in the last 48 hours has focused pretty much exclusively on two issues: a) nudging people into better decision-making around the sort of information they share online; and b) forcing companies to deploy use of shared data in an ethical fashion.

If more people begin to pay closer attention to online privacy as a result of all this, tremendous.  But such a solution to the problem remains dependent on a) the knowledge of the consumer and her ability to act based on that knowledge (Facebook’s privacy controls are notoriously labyrinthine); b) the willingness of other firms to act swiftly to respond to breaches or in this case perceived breaches of their rules governing the use of their products (however creepy Girls Around Me is, it does not appear that the company behind the app, Russian firm I-Free, actually did anything that was not allowed); and c) regulation in this area to keep pace in with technological change.

It took an excellent blog post by science-fiction author Charles Stross – best known for his novels Accelerando and Singularity Sky, set in a post-technological-singularity world, and who is used to extemporising on the possible social implications of technological change – to think a bit more deeply about the meaning of this episode.

Girls Around Me may have been shut down, but, as Stross argues, the app is just “symptomatic of a really major side-effect of our forced acculturation into Facebook’s broken model of human social interaction—a broken model shared by all the most successful social networks, by design—and that it is going to get much worse, until it kills people.”

He imagines a near future of other, far nastier mash-ups of geolocation and aggregation of publicly available data, with apps “being designed to facilitate the identification and elimination of some ethnic or class enemy.”

He envisages a ‘Yids Among Us’ for anti-Semites. He wonders how such technology could be employed in a Rwanda-style situation, with, say, a ‘Hutus/Tutsis Near Me I Can Massacre’ app.

Beyond malevolent uses of geolocation, Stross notes that there is already an algorithm out there that can accurately guess the sexual orientation of an individual based on network connections. Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree, two young computer scientists at MIT, developed it to show how network data implicitly reveals private information, by determining that the percentage of a user’s friends who identify as gay is strongly correlated with the sexual orientation of that user.

It’s an amazing piece of science in the public interest. The paper deserves a full read if you have the time, but suffice to quote the authors’ conclusions:

“The privacy controls of Facebook, a multi–billion dollar corporation, offer anaemic protection … [O]ur model built from relatively simple network data was mostly unimpeded by Facebook’s privacy efforts. Future extensions of this work need not be limited to Facebook and could be applied to telephone call records or even e–mail transactions, as those communications rely on social connections. Who is to say that companies are not already doing the type of network analysis presented here behind closed doors?

“Extensions of our work to other networks has profound ramifications. Network data shifts the locus of information control away from individuals. Each individual’s traditional and absolute discretion is replaced by that of members of his social network.”

Network data, search-term data mining and tracking of online activity is already being successfully used in behavioural advertising to recommend books you might like to buy and a selection of appropriate do-it-yourself products when you decide to refit your bathroom.

Using algorithms based on search queries, Google can predict flu outbreaks faster than epidemiologists of national health agency flu surveillance.

I’m sure that some employers would be very interested in an application that accurately predicts which employees are likely union organisers or those most open to joining a union, while governments might want a programme that can guess the identity of political dissidents or anticipate who is about to break the law.

Is this unnecessary fear-mongering? Grindr, the gay dating app that employs GPS to locate other gay men in the area, and which could have been the perfect hunting tool for violent homophobes, has not resulted in any explosion of gay-bashings. The Rwandan genocidaires did not need Facebook or Foursquare to perpetrate their massacre. And governments intent on citizen surveillance will do so whatever tools are available.

So technological advance is certainly not the cause of injustice. However, it can make its performance more efficient. Counting machines were not responsible for the Holocaust, but, according to the historian of the relationship between IBM and the Nazi regime, Edwin Black: “without IBM’s machinery, continuing upkeep and service, as well as the supply of punch cards, whether located on-site or off-site, Hitler’s camps could have never managed the numbers they did.”

It all depends who is wielding the technology. Knives can be used to cut up cauliflower or to murder Tutsis.

As Stross notes: “The app is not the problem. The problem is the deployment by profit-oriented corporations of behavioural psychology techniques to induce people to over-share information which can then be aggregated and disclosed to third parties for targeted marketing purposes.”

I suppose we could always switch providers if we don’t like the way a particulr business operates. Now, it’s never the case that it is as easy as the free-market fundamentalists pretend it is to switch providers of a good or service when one is unhappy with the product, but it is true that that possibility is there at least for some items, like cheese or pillow cases. Except that Facebook isn’t a regular product. It is an effective monopoly.

Google Plus arrived last year with its modicum of superior identity and privacy management compared to FB, but hasn’t met with the success Google expected, largely because a customer cannot shift their brand loyalty in the social networking world as easily as they can from Coke to Pepsi. They would have to convince all their friends to jump ship at the same time.

Facebook, like Google’s search product, has no viable competitors and for the above reason, is unlikely to any time in the near future, making Facebook a what is called a ‘natural monopoly’.

Historically, natural monopolies emerged in those industries where the massive capital costs involved presented significant barriers to entry and discouraged competition (railways, electricity, water, etc.). In almost all cases, these industries were also utilities that everyone needed access to – what could today be described as ‘essential services’. Search I think it is fair to argue should now be viewed as just such a utility, as essential as water or electricity. Social networking for its part is closing in on being as essential as telephony.

Natural monopolies are in general robust entities, but do not have to last forever. Natural monopolies can sometimes be undermined by technological change (such as Britain’s canal system in the 19th Century by the then-new technology of railways). Google’s search (although not its other products) is a natural monopoly that is ripe for such a toppling. A new search engine with much more powerfully intelligent semantic search, able to understand more closely what a user is looking for, could quickly challenge the mighty Google. And Facebook is not forever. Remember MySpace, or Friendster?

Thinkup for example, is a free, non-profit open-source ‘data-liberation and analytics application’ that aims to build in its words a decentralised information network “that connects to today’s social networks, but isn’t centralised and dependent on a company or investors.” Diaspora meanwhile, still yet to go into beta status, is trying to build a free personal web server that implements a distributed social networking service in order to allow users to “communicate directly, securely, and without running exchanges past the prying eyes of Zuckerberg and his business associates.”

But Diaspora is likely to run into the same problems as Google Plus in trying to get users to jump en masse over to its concept, and it is already handicapped by having none of the market-dominance advantages that should have helped Google.

More fundamentally, there is a problem in viewing the problem as just a technical challenge to be overcome by the right start-up: Even if a Thinkup  or Diaspora  manages against all odds to dislodge Lord Zuckerberg, in the meantime, both FB and Google remain private natural monopolies, with all the problems that such entities entail. And ‘in the meantime’ may in any case be a long, long time.

And will the new boss be much better than the old boss? It depends on the new entity’s democratic accountability.

So what should be a progressive response to this brave new world of privacy-mulching social-network natural monopolies? I can’t believe I’m quoting Milton Friedman here, but here goes. The arch-liberal economist wrote that in response to a natural monopoly materialising: “There is only a choice among three evils: private unregulated monopoly, private monopoly regulated by the state, and government operation.”

Leaving a private monopoly alone and unregulated – the situation we have at the moment – is clearly not tenable. And progressives rightly have historically argued that natural monopolies do not make good candidates for regulation alone due to much of what made them natural monopolies in the first place – they are the most adept sorcerers of regulatory capture (what happens when a regulation or regulatory agency intended to serve the public interest and keep a close eye on an industry instead advances an industry’s or company’s interest).

So what about Friedman’s third option?  Once upon a time, when when natural monopolies were creatures of a single nation state, and before the neo-liberal mania for deregulation and privatisation infected policymaking some 30 years ago, electricity firms, water companies, railways and the like could be placed into public ownership. For all the problems this sometimes presented, on balance, public ownership of natural monopolies served the general interest to a much greater degree than the alternatives. I’m not going to rehearse here the problems of deregulated, privatised water, electric, rail, waste management and telecoms that we have seen since this epoch, but they are manifold. (If you’re interested, the Public Service International Research Unit at the University of Greenwich is an excellent resource)

But what should be the progressive response to these new kinds of natural monopolies, ‘digital natural monopolies’, which have become so not – or not largely – as a result of capital costs but as a result of other types of insurmountable advantages that flow from a networked world? Very few people have given this much consideration. There are privacy and digital rights advocates aplenty (La Quadrature du Net, the Open Rights Group, Electronic Frontiers Foundation, etc.), which all do great work, and Europe’s increasingly popular Pirate Parties, who now even have two seats in the European Parliament and won another four last week in the Saarland state elections in Germany.  But the online rights discourse (including separate but related subjects such as net neutrality, file-sharing, etc.) is often dominated by a libertarian politic.

The libertarian character of the digital rights conversation has something of a split personality. Its activists and lobbyists are caught between a recognition that state intervention in the market is required, for example, to preserve net neutrality, and a deregulatory neo-liberal instinct that prevents them from conceiving of a return to public ownership of the telecommunication companies – a move that would preserve net neutrality; ensure high-speed internet access to all locales, not just those that are profitable; and enable a redistribution of their windfall profits back to public-interest journalists and independent musicians who have been hit so hard since the advent of the internet.

A more progressive politic, from those less fearful of public, democratic intervention against the market, has something to add to this conversation. What it is though, I’m not quite sure yet.

Is it possible to construct an argument for public ownership of the likes of Facebook and Google? Is it even desirable? Is the prospect of the state as superintendent of all this personal information really a preferable alternative to a private, profit-seeking business as superintendent? Which state would do the owning? These are truly global companies. The UN then? But the UN is not a democratic structure. Can an international non-profit social network co-operative be built instead, democratically controlled by its members independent of both the market and the state?

O Wikipedians, to have a social network with your ethos rather than the mercenary avarice of Facebook’s owners.

I don’t have an answer, but the key point here is that we need to start thinking about what it might be.

Progressives need to start thinking much more deeply about issues such as geolocation, social networking, search, data mining and other digital issues – and how they relate to global governance. These topics cannot be left to be framed by the libertarians of the likes of the Pirate Parties and breathless, unlettered internet-guru douchebags.

And here is how all this is tangled up with issues of global warming, austerity and even war: The 21st Century seems to keep throwing up significant public policy challenges that only a system of international and democratic governance can solve (climate change, the financial crisis, transfer pricing, tax havens, the internet), yet we do not have such a system.

So these issues are being tackled in the absence of such a global democratic arena simply by the most powerful ‘sector stakeholders’ – might makes right.

We have an International Criminal Court, but in practice it’s the International Criminal Court for Third-World Criminals Only. We have the UNFCCC, but it’s a few key countries that shepherd the process to the disadvantage of the developing world. ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) against genocide and crimes against humanity is an emerging international legal norm used to justify so-called humanitarian intervention, but can never be employed against the most powerful countries and their allies. And the European Union is a grand experiment in post-democratic transnational governance that is sidelining democratically elected chambers in favour of technocrats and diplomats.

Less-than-democratic international structures are being built with or without us. A global system is already being fabricated – politically and digitally – whether we’re paying attention or not.

In response, sober, practical yet genuinely transformative proposals for the construction of a democratic global system – a global republic, if you will – need to start being developed without being dismissed as pie-in-the-sky maximalism.

So maybe the slogan on the banner shouldn’t exactly be ‘Nationalise Facebook Now!’, but, erm, it should be something. Let’s start thinking what it might be.

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