Facebook’s strategies for consumer surveillance

I was asked to write a 1000-words-only essay on Facebook’s strategies for consumer surveillance. So, here it is:

You are the sum total of your data

Don DeLillo (White Noise, 1985)[1]

 

Citizens everywhere around the world are exposed to mass scale data collection and datafication. From mass and targeted surveillance, blocking and filtering, leaks of personal data, third party trackers and profiling[2], to algorithm politics and mediation, tracking browsing history – every user is being target of these behaviors. Governments, ISPs, hackers, companies – they all gather data and generate information about us and trace the digital fingerprints we leave behind in our every-day living on the net. As our lives become increasingly datafied, as our online and offline lives merge into one big bulk of data, many have recognized the value of data and meta-data, making individuals vulnerable to the practices of datafication.

We live majority of our lives mediated, through the screens of our computers and devices. Facebook is omnipresent. With 1.79 billion active monthly users[3], and mission to further expand, it seems like Facebook is everything we need to satisfy our daily needs. We get our news from there[4], we communicate with family, friends, peers, co-workers and clients via its services, we do shopping using its chatbots, do business and recruit customers via Facebook Business.

WHY and WHAT?

Facebook’s business model relies solely on its’ ads revenue[5]. The product Facebook sells are its users – their behavior, preferences, routines, social connections – their data “selves/lives”. In order to gain much bigger profit, Facebook needs to be good in profiling its users. And how does Facebook do that? Through dataveillance – surveillance through data, enabled by its’ algorithm factory.

When Matzner talks about the data assembling of “data double” this could be also applied to consumer surveillance – he outlines that “current, data-based modes of surveillance” (p.203) “do not concern only who someone is, but who this person will (potentially) be[7]”. Translated into Facebook mode of surveillance, not just what the person at the moment is (likes, wants, buys, listens to, votes for), but what he/she might in the future be. Dataveillance in the present moment is not simply descriptive (monitoring) but also predictive (conjecture) and prescriptive (enactment) (Raily, p.127)[8]. In this line we can draw a connection with Matzner’s “data double”, seeing data used for consumer surveillance not like a representative, but rather performative.  Facebook does not only profiles, Facebook‘s consumer surveillance aims also to direct and to predict behavior.

HOW?

When talking about Facebook as a platform for consumer surveillance, we must talk about the algorithms behind the platform. Its’ algorithm factory. The Share Lab did thorough investigation into the algorithm factory of Facebook, and gave answers to how/what/why data is gathered from each Facebook user. In their illustrative research they point that we live in an “algorithmic society, where objects of labor are digital content, digital footprint, metadata; instruments of labor are social networks, digital platforms, devices; and products are profiles, pattern, anomalies, prediction.[9]” Following the line of Mark Graham, they also see this process of consumer surveillance as a form of platform capitalism[10] – “the main raw materials in the process (data, content and metadata) are the objects of labor and they are created by humans, but the labor itself is performed by algorithms. […]Specifics of this system is that users that are being used as a raw material are constantly working on fine tuning of themselves as a target, feeding this system with more and more information about themselves[11]”. Facebook does this by its Social Graph, being feed by petabytes of user data through 3 different databases that store all the data/metadata and content we create: Action store maintaining information describing users’ actions, Content Store – stores objects representing various types of content and Edge store – stores the information describing connections between users and other objects[12].

The ultimate goal of this surveillance (and profiling) is targeting for ads and products. The targeting is being done based on social connections, events, search results, routine estimation, inferring household income, demographics, interests etc.  Once the user is profiled, he’s being served the adequate ads.

CAN WE OPT-OUT?

“Countering surveillance connotes evading to be recorded, filmed, evading the production of any data” (Matzner, p. 201)[13]. Unfortunately, one cannot opt-out of Facebook surveillance. The only way to do it is to not use the platform. But, this is not an effective tactic, as Facebook gathers data even for users which are not on their platform (through third-party trackers, widgets, cookies and plugins)[14][15].  There are organizations offering tools for resistance, but none managed so far to efficiently block Facebook surveillance and data gathering[16]. To use Matzner’s words – to evade datafication is to not produce any data – by being off Facebook and off the network.

 

[1] Raily, Rita. Dataveillance and Countervailance in “Raw Data Is An Oxymoron” (ed. Gitelman Lisa), p.126 (pp.121-147) 2013 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

[2]Roesner, Franziska. Detecting and Defending Against Third-Party Tracking on the Web, Proceedings of the 9th USENIX conference on Networked Systems Design and Implementation. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262333390_Detecting_and_defending_against_third-party_tracking_on_the_web (accessed January 24, 2017)

[3] https://newsroom.fb.com/company-info/ (accessed January 23, 2017)

[4] 62% of US adults, according to the latest PEW Research Center research http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/ (accessed January 23, 2017)

[5] Facebook’s Revenues for 2015 were estimated at 17.93 billion USD

[7] Matzner, Tobias. Beyond data as representation: The performativity of Big Data in surveillance. Surveillance and Society, Vol.14, No2 (2016). Available at: http://ojs.library.queensu.ca/index.php/surveillance-and-society/article/view/beyond_data (accessed January 21, 2017)

[8] Raily, Rita. Dataveillance and Countervailance in “Raw Data Is An Oxymoron” (ed. Gitelman Lisa), (pp.121-147) 2013 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

[9]Share Lab. Immaterial Labour and Data harvesting. Available at https://labs.rs/en/facebook-algorithmic-factory-immaterial-labour-and-data-harvesting/ (accessed January 23, 2017)

[10] Graham, Mark. Let’s make platform capitalism more accountable; in New Internationlist, available at: https://newint.org/blog/2016/12/13/making-platform-capitalism-more-accountable/ (accessed January 24, 2017)

[11] Share Lab. Immaterial Labour and Data harvesting. Available at https://labs.rs/en/facebook-algorithmic-factory-immaterial-labour-and-data-harvesting/ (accessed January 23, 2017)

[12]Share Lab. Human Data Banks and Algoritmic Labour, available at:  https://labs.rs/en/facebook-algorithmic-factory-human-data-banks-and-algorithmic-labour/ (accessed January 22, 2017)

[13] Matzner, Tobias. Beyond data as representation: The performativity of Big Data in surveillance. Surveillance and Society, Vol.14, No2 (2016). Available at: http://ojs.library.queensu.ca/index.php/surveillance-and-society/article/view/beyond_data (accessed January 21, 2017)

[14] For further explanation see: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/apr/10/facebook-admits-it-tracks-non-users-but-denies-claims-it-breaches-eu-privacy-law and http://www.theverge.com/2016/5/27/11795248/facebook-ad-network-non-users-cookies-plug-ins

[15] Roesner, Franziska. Detecting and Defending Against Third-Party Tracking on the Web, Proceedings of the 9th USENIX conference on Networked Systems Design and Implementation. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262333390_Detecting_and_defending_against_third-party_tracking_on_the_web (accessed January 24, 2017)

[16] Such as Tactical Technology’s Data Detox Kit, Electronic Frontiers Foundation’s tools and plugins.

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