When it comes to the Internet, people often take for granted “free” access to online products and services, such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter. We tend to think that our use alone of such services, bolstering metrics like their “daily average user” figures, is what allows them to generate greater ad revenue. Yet, as undercover journalist James O’Keefe revealed this week in a Project Veritas investigation of Twitter, this is pure delusion; proving, once again, that if something is free, you’re the product.
As with much of O’Keefe’s work the findings, while revealing, are not shocking since the targets of his investigations become “targets” because they are suspected of engaging in unethical (or illegal) dealings. So, for example, to hear Twitter engineers and security experts talk of unfettered access to personal correspondences (called “direct messages” or “DMs” for short), and essentially how nothing transmitted across the platform is private or erasable, confirms what we have known all along about online privacy — there is none; particularly on platforms that make their money harvesting data from its users.
“So, what happens is like, you like, write something or post pictures on line, they never go away,” Pranay Singh, a Direct Messaging Engineer for Twitter, tells an undercover investigator for Project Veritas. “Because even after you send them, people are like analyzing them, to see what you are interested in, to see what you are talking about.”
So what exactly do Twitter employees see? Everything. Private conversations, lurid photos, clicked links, and location data are just the tip of the iceberg to what information can be collected on users. Then, according to Twitter employees, all of this information is assembled into a private profile of users, to be sold to the highest bidder; or, far too often, hacked and stolen.
Of course, as uncomfortable and, perhaps, creepy as it is to have our deepest fears about online privacy confirmed so directly, it is important to remember that social media platforms are still private-sector entities (cozy relationships with federal law enforcement not withstanding). In other words, digital profiles of users compiled by sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google are primarily used to monetize online activities via advertisers, and not, as in the case of federal agencies that also are actively building digital profiles of people, used to put people in prison.
However, the disparate reactions to O’Keefe’s most recent exposé, and the speed with which the U.S. House passed an expansion of domestic surveillance powers last week with nary a bit of public concern, demonstrates that our anger is far too narrow.
Moreover, even when the data is not handled directly by humans, and instead analyzed by computer algorithms designed to look for suspicious patterns in the data, the potential for abuse is very real. Innocent Americans can easily come under investigation for perfectly legal activities that suddenly appear suspicious according to secret, predictive pattern-matching formula; with “probable cause” deemed unnecessary because Uncle Sam is “fighting terrorism” with such powers.
So why is it that especially in conservative circles, Twitter elicits more scorn and anger than federal agencies and their enablers in Congress? Given how often (and easily) innocent Americans are swept into the clutches of the federal justice system, we have much more to fear from government snoops than social media engineers; and, more to be concerned about with digital profiles used by law enforcement than those used by advertisers.
Fortunately, in the person of Sen. Rand Paul, we have an opportunity to at least put the brakes on the speeding FISA locomotive. But regardless, and over the longer run, if users of social media platforms remain ignorant of, or uncaring about how both the private and the government sectors are collecting, data-basing, and using our private information, there’s precious little one U.S. Senator can do.