Why I am not using Facebook. And you shouldn't either.
(yes, this also applies to other platforms)
This is a complex topic and when I discuss this with people I keep failing horribly at explaining the rationale behind my point of view, so I thought I should write this down.
Disclaimer: I am deliberately not citing sources for any of the things I say. This is my personal interpretation of the situation based on years of observation of the topic. There is no single source of truth or evidence and I am not trying to prove anything. I am just providing this write-down in case you want to know how I think about this stuff. At the end of the day, you have to draw your own conclusions, so you should also do the research to find the information you are basing your opinion on.
So my reasons to avoid Facebook, WhatsApp, Amazon Echo, Alexa, etc. loosely in reverse order of importance:
- I find it creepy that some random company collects data about me without me even knowing what data exactly. Especially voice assistants such as Alexa or Amazon Echo have repeatedly been in the news for recording situations that clearly weren't intended for their ears. But other companies have had their issues, too. Facebook has repeatedly leaked huge chunks of personal data they probably should never have collected in the first place if they were putting any priority on the best interests of their customers.
- The apps provided by tech companies might also collect data unrelated to the services they provide. E.g. if I install WhatsApp on my phone, the app might read information beyond my WhatsApp messages such as SMS messages or call logs. Since these applications are closed source, I have no way of verifying what they do and the permission systems on the major mobile platforms are nowhere near granular enough to be able to control this properly.
- The same is true for the promised end-to-end encryption. They say that my communication is private, but I have to trust them to be honest about what they do... which I don't.
- Group dynamics. The single-most reason why people feel kind of forced to use these services is that "everyone does it". I do not want to add to this effect through my own behavior.
- I hate the idea that my communication channels depend on random tech companies. More powerful people than me have been bitten by this. E.g. Donald Trump had to learn the hard way that when you depend on a private company such as Twitter to reach your audience, you can be cut off of said audience when that company decides to lock you out. If all my social life and communication took place through Facebook or Facebook-owned technology such as WhatsApp, a ban from Facebook services would have a huge impact on my life. This is not the kind of dependency I want to sign up to.
- Most of these services, especially the ones that are free of charge, have business models where the users are the product. You pay with your personal data. The only way that this can work is that the collected data is monetized in some other way. Some of the ways are rather benign (at least from a user perspective) such as targeted ads. But there are others that can impact you in quite undesirable ways.
Make no mistake: The fact that you believe that the data you share is innocent/benign/irrelevant does not mean that it actually is. Every tiny piece of information that is collected about you is another facet in what can eventually be composed into a mindblowingly detailed profile. This includes seemingly unimportant details such as with whom you communicate, when you are online, what contents you look at for an extended period of time, the list goes on.
These aspects of your internet use are fed into mathematical models that are then used to make decisions on e.g. whether you are credit-worthy, healthy, qualified for a certain job or a safe driver.
As such, the information you shared in the "I-have-nothing-to-hide"-spirit can end up having a very real and potentially painful impact on your life. While I realize that these types of problems sound hypothetical, there are plenty of examples where this is already happening right now, such as e.g. artificial-intelligence-aided court judgements, predictive policing, hiring systems or China's social scoring system to name only a few.
Another thing that adds to this is that the seemingly irrelevant information you share today might become compromising tomorrow due to changed circumstances such as legislation changes, personal career changes or simply new technology that can analyze the data in new ways and extract information you did not intend to share.
A famous example for this was a fitness app that allowed users to share their gps tracks. Through this data, the positions of secret military bases were revealed to the public, an effect that the soldiers using the app surely had not anticipated, let alone intended.
- Impact on political power: The masses' decision making process for elections has changed radically. Social media have a tremendous impact on how opinions are formed. A single youtube video can get viral out of nowhere, reach millions of voters within hours and change their voting decision on election day. People live in a filter-bubble that (mainly) results from a combination of the following effects:
To make things even worse these mechanisms are easy to exploit to manipulate the masses. Clever social media campaigns have played an important role e.g. in the brexit vote and the Trump election.
- Social media platforms want you to stay on their sites as long as possible, so they are incentivized to show you content that is likely to make you stay. If you demonstrate interest in content that questions global warming this will increase the probablity that you will be shown articles that claim that climate change is a lie. As a result you will perceive a growing support for this conspirancy theory in the media.
- The effect of this information imbalance is amplified by a psychological effect called confirmation bias: when reading an article, you are more likely to accept claims that support your own opinion. Likewise you are more likely to doubt or completely distrust information that presents a different view than your own.
- Another problem is a general lack of media literacy: I keep observing otherwise smart and reasonable people who believe the most absurd claims presented in some random youtube video and even cite that video as "evidence" in a discussion.
In other words, we are building a world where someone in Mark Zuckerberg's position has more power than the most powerful politicians in the world. I am pretty fed up by how much my right to privacy and data protection is violated by profit-driven companies on a daily basis. However, so far I would not say that they are actively evil beyond just wanting to maximize earnings. But what happens when that changes? Imagine someone with really sick ideas (think holocaust) had the power that comes with control over Facebook or Google. Scary!
- The perceived benefits resulting from using Facebook & Co might arguably be worth accepting the downsides described in points 1-6 for some people. However, the problems described under 7 should be considered unacceptable for anyone in their right mind.
Still, there is one aspect I find even more important: The future consequences we do not anticipate today.
Both information technology and data analysis are incredibly complex topics that have changed radically in a short period of time. Just think about the fact that smart phones basically did not exist a mere couple of years ago. This is a trend that will continue. We can safely assume that in ten to twenty years from now technology will again have changed our everyday lives in ways that we are unable to imagine today.
So we urgently need to stop blindly trusting tech companies with our most personal information.
Legislation has failed miserably at keeping up with the tech industry's pace for years now and I see no hope for this to change in the forseeable future.
In other words: If we want to stop these virtually uncontrollable tech giants from taking over control, we have to vote through our own behavior.
The only way we can force them to use their power more responsibly is to reward companies that treat our personal information with the care it deserves by choosing their products over those of companies that have demonstrated that they don't care as long as the bottom line looks good.
The good news is: Making a change is way easier than for any other serious problem today. In most of the cases, it is just a matter of installing a different app or using a different website.
So to make a long story short:
Stop shrugging all these concerns away just because it's convenient.
And please (!) stop saying ridiculous things such as "I have nothing to hide" or "I cannot stop using WhatsApp because X".
Stop finding excuses.