Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rise of the Machines, or Why I can never trust Facebook with my content

Famous quote from the Facebook CEO about people who trust him is here. Pays to keep that in mind as you read the below.

Recently there was a bit of a hue and cry over some "research" that Facebook did using their user base. Apparently, in an effort to determine how users react to positive and negative messages they see in their daily feeds and how this influences the kinds of messages they themselves post to the social media network, Facebook researchers presented some of their audience with negative messages and others with positive ones, then saw that it was indeed the case that the messages people were exposed to did in fact influence the said people's posts going forward.

This isn't the first time Facebook is accused of something like this. Why, just a couple of years ago there was another set of news stories about how Facebook tried to influence their users' choices regarding whether or not they checked the donor option on the backs of their drivers licenses. However that was largely viewed as a positive example of peer pressure and was analyzed extensively here, here, here, and here

The latest scandal, reported here among other places, just goes to show that people (and by this I mean smart people who work together at large corporations, who think they are smarter than the average person outside their firm), will misuse data they have available to them unless they are legally prohibited from doing what they think they can get away with. In many cases, the existing laws are not designed to account for the fact that so much data can be aggregated at any one place. Companies like Facebook, and Google in particular, have so petabytes or more of data at their disposal, collect as much of the good machine learning, data analysis, programming and analytics talent as they can, and what they can do with the two things together makes it very scary indeed.

Before companies like Google grew to the size they are now, or had access to data or talent like they do today, Telecom companies in the USA, the likes of Sprint, Verizon, AT&T etc had the opportunity to build similar kinds of databases and services to leverage off of them. However, regulations pertaining to phone companies were still quite stringent, and many of these firms felt gathering and using user data without explicit permission being granted to them by the said users could expose them to litigation. So while many of the kinds of services we see today were available in telecom research labs even in that period, they were usually not deployed in the real world without explicit opt-in permissions from users, which led to their proliferation being very limited.

That said, between Google and Facebook, if one relies on mechanical data mining and adaptive algorithms such as those implemented in Google Now, while the other relies on the honesty and good intentions of human researchers, I for one would prefer the former, given machines are less likely to use my data with a particular end in mind such as testing psychological behavior in the aggregate across large user populations. Even given this however, best not to have anyone use my data against me at all. If I need something, I will pull it myself from the Internet. The network, learning too much about me to deliver what I might need before I need it is extremely creepy indeed, especially if I have to petition some company to get my data "forgotten".

"Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one."
                                                                                                              -- Benjamin Franklin
The same can be said about Freedom and Convenience.

Notice a new phenomenon? Earlier when you bought a phone under contract, it used to feel like your phone company owned the device. Now when you buy a phone, if it is a Google phone or an iPhone, even without a contract, it feels like you're leasing the device from one of those companies. When you buy a computer running Windows 8, it feels like you're leasing the device from Microsoft - you even need a Hotmail account to sign in to it. Why? Aren't you paying enough money to buy your phone or computer outright? Feels like a step backward into a different set of walled gardens to me.