“If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” This quote — supposedly from Andrew Lewis/blue_beetle, and more frequently paraphrased as “if it’s free, then you’re the product” — initially referred to the arrival of ad-funded TV in the 70s. Today, we have become the product 24/7.
None more so than on Facebook, which from its very signup page proudly affirms it’ll always be free… before hoovering up your data like there’s no tomorrow. One of the best illustrations of this is to be discovered at Paris’ Gaïté Lyrique right now, where a huge, chilling work – Vladan Joler and SHARE lab’s Facebook Algorithmic Factory – is displayed as part of a fascinating festival called “Persona non Data”, in a corner of the venue dubbed The Glass Room Experience:
In fact, this is just a tiny extract — showing how Facebook’s algorithms target its users — from a flowchart which spreads over 2.5 metres high and wide. You can check out the work in full here… but it’s much more effective in real life, ironically.
The point is, Facebook knows us better than we know ourselves. It even knows what we’re doing outside Facebook. And as for Google, why do you think Gmail, YouTube, Maps et al are free? Because there’s way more value for Google in the data they can mine from our emails, videos and movements than in the cost of making those services.
So how can we limit the data these companies are constantly mining? The answer is also to be found at the Gaïté Lyrique, in the form of an envelope provided by Firefox makers Mozilla and the Tactical Technology Collective: the 8-day Data Detox Kit (top photo). Also available online, the kit takes us through the stages of reducing our data trail, step by step:
Day 0: Getting Started, by realising you’re concerned about things like “ads that follow me around on the internet”; that “someone will steal my identity and open accounts in my name”; or that companies are “making money off my personal information”. And no worries if you’re pressed for time: the programme only takes 30 minutes per day.
Day 1: Discovery, or finding out who you are online, to others. Clear your cache and do a Google search for your name. and then click on “Images”. Any you don’t like? If on social media, you can ask the person who posted it to take it down. If on Google, you can file a request for its removal, here.
Day 2: Establishing how well Google ‘knows’ you. After establishing that what you share with Google products like Search, Gmail, Maps, Hangouts, Forms or YouTube can often be more than what you’d share with your BFF, the Data Detox kit encourages you to check out your activity when connected to its services, and to try to delete some of it (you knew Google keeps your entire search history, right?) Fortunately, there is also a Privacy Checkup page, which you should very much consult, notably to manage which apps have permission to access your account. But as the kit reminds us, “no matter how you set your privacy controls, using Google products means continuing to give Google data.” So why not try some alternatives? DuckDuckGo is a great alternative to Search; and Firefox respects your private life more than Chrome (as a reminder, Firefox makers Mozilla are behind the Data Detox kit…)
Day 3: Detoxing your social media accounts: after Google, what does Facebook know about you? Head to “>Settings > Ads > Ad Preferences > Your Interests > See all your interests” & you’ll find out. Then go to the “Privacy” section to check that your posts are only visible by your friends; that search engines outside of Facebook can’t link to your profile, and that only friends can see posts in which you’ve been tagged. On that note, you can untag yourself from pictures you don’t like, via the Activity Log, and even delete posts or comments you’re no longer so proud of. Not in the kit, but you can also stop Facebook sharing your data with third party apps here; and why not delete the app from your phone? It can access your contacts, location, camera, storage and more. So if you can’t leave Facebook just yet, using the web version on your phone will give away less data than the app.
Day 4: Checking what data you share when surfing on your browser: did you know trackers follow us everywhere on the web? Facebook’s Like and Twitter’s Tweet button are the two most visible, but there are many more. To see what a tracker sees, head to Panopticlick, a tool developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which evaluates your browser’s level of exposition to trackers. You can then block them entirely, notably by always using “private mode”. And why not install Privacy Badger, which blocks spying ads and invisible trackers?
Day 5: Finding out who your phone is ‘talking’ to: your smartphone is constantly leaking data. Notably when it tries to connect to wifi all the time, it’s essentially giving your name or ID away to hotspots everywhere. So start by changing your phone’s name to something less personal. Then switch off wifi and Bluetooth when you’re ot using them. Next, apply the same browsing principles as above – delete your history, cookies and cache frequently, always use private mode – and above all deactivate your location data on all but the most essential apps (Maps, etc). You can also clear your location history. However, Android users, sorry: Google may still track you via mobile data towers even when you’ve turned localisation off…
Day 6: Cleaning up, by getting rid of apps you don’t use. How many of the apps on your phone do you use frequently, or indeed ever? They are all sending data back to their owners, and potentially elsewhere. So delete them! According to the Data Detox kit, your exposure to data collection is above average as soon as you have over 40 apps installed. So use alternatives, like web apps, or more privacy-friendly alternatives to Facebook Messenger, like Signal (Edward Snowden’s messaging app of choice. It’s THAT safe).
Day 7: Delving into profiling: profiling, or building up a portrait of you as a consumer, is now common practice for all major data companies. You can see how Google profiles you here, for example. But of course, they’re not always right. In 2016, UK insurance company Admiral developed an app which would modify premiums based on your Facebook posts. If you used lots of “!!!”, “always” or “never”, you’d be profiled as a less reliable driver, and your premiums would go off. Admiral canned the app just before its release. Plenty more examples are to be found on this day’s detox kit page – including the fact it takes 9 hours to read Kindle’s terms and conditions – so be warned!
Day 8: Completing the Detox, by turning it into a lifestyle: make your data detox into a personal routine, ensuring you clear your history, cookies etc on a regular basis and that you have ultra-difficult, different passwords for all the services you use (a password manager like LastPass can be very handy for that). It also makes a lot of sense to use one service for search, another for browsing and a third one for email – i.e. not always Google – to keep those data hounds guessing!
And, of course, you’re more than welcome to share the Data Detox programme with your nearest and dearest, via this post or via the kit’s own site, which offers far more detail than the above resume, and includes more links and interactive features than here.
After that, you’re all set for a healthier digital lifestyle!
All photos in this post are from The Glass Room Experience, which runs at Paris’ Gaïté Lyrique until February 10. Check it out!