Once again Facebook has been caught violating everyone’s privacy, at a scale and with methods far beyond what anyone had imagined. Through secret deals with other companies—including Amazon! And the Royal Bank of Canada?—the data-mining company has been tunneling into aspects of life where no one had plausibly granted it permission to dig.
Facebook always does this. People are reacting, as people do each time, by saying “delete Facebook.” This is the right answer, but not in the way most people mean.
People are encouraging one another, as individual informed consumers, to opt out of using the service. It’s a perfectly fine act of protest. On one level, it touches Facebook’s existential fear that, being a completely unnecessary service, it could someday see everyone just get tired of using it, a la MySpace, and the whole thing would end.
But on the practical, everyday level, Facebook doesn’t care if a person quits. The thing that’s necessary to understand about this latest scandal—and about Facebook’s entire surveillance-based business model—is that your consent and participation have very little to do with it. Whatever dossier the company has compiled and shared about you is not, by Facebook’s standards, yours. It got the information from your Amazon data or your acquaintances’ address books or your Netflix habits, not from you. You can’t make it go away.
Your individual participation in Facebook means almost nothing to it. The story the company tells is about everyone participating in a mutually useful exchange of information: you tell the company about who your friends are and what your interests may be, and it uses that information to connect you with more friends and more interesting information. But that visible, consensually collected data, the data people are aware of when they think about what Facebook knows about them, is nothing more than the plastic name tab on the bulging file folder of what the company has really found out about you and how it uses it.
Facebook has so much data about everyone that it can profile you even if you’ve never used the service. The company denies keeping these shadow profiles, but if it’s not just lying—as it tends to do—it’s being completely deceptive. At a minimum, what Facebook does is maintain a supersaturated solution of data about everyone, which crystallizes into a full, invasive profile when a single grain of official identity is dropped into it: Facebook doesn’t know everything about you; it just already has all the information it would need to know everything about you.
Facebook’s entire purpose is to make money with that data set. What its users want makes no difference to it at all. Here is one typical expression of Facebook’s attitude—one building block in the walls of its worldwide panopticon—as told to Gizmodo Media’s Kashmir Hill (whose Facebook stories I used to help edit), when she asked about why the company was tracking the location of users who had specifically turned off location tracking:
“There is no way for people to opt out of using location for ads entirely,” said a Facebook spokesperson by email. “We use city and zip level location which we collect from IP addresses and other information such as check-ins and current city from your profile to ensure we are providing people with a good service—from ensuring they see Facebook in the right language, to making sure that they are shown nearby events and ads for businesses that are local to them.”
The difference between what Facebook is doing and what Facebook wants people to think it’s doing is so vast that the company can’t even imitate a logical argument in its own defense anymore. Facebook is “providing people with a good service” by refusing to allow them to prevent advertisers from following their movement. The only meaningful commitment here is Facebook’s commitment to exploiting its data set on behalf of advertisers, no matter what.
Until that data set is gone, Facebook will never stop. The hidden data mine will keep hollowing out your private life and spilling poison as long as Facebook keeps operating it. It is a persistent nuisance, a blight on everyone’s peaceful existence. Condemn it—not in the moral, opt-out sense, but in the property sense. Seize it all, give people back their own friend-network information, and delete everything else forever.