Culture

Time to Break Up 'Big Data'

A battle between two tech titans heated up last week. Neither of them looked good.

Arnold Ahlert · Feb. 4, 2019

A story broken by Tech Crunch reveals Facebook secretly paid users between the ages of 16 and 35 to breach their own privacy since 2016. “The program is administered through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest to cloak Facebook’s involvement, and is referred to in some documentation as ‘Project Atlas’ — a fitting name for Facebook’s effort to map new trends and rivals around the globe,” the website reported.

Willing Apple iOS and Android users were paid $20 per month plus referral fees to install a virtual private network (VPN) called “Facebook Research” on their own phones, giving the tech giant root access to their devices. This allowed Facebook to view extensive data of participants’ mobile activity.

Even that wasn’t enough. Facebook also asked those users to provide a screenshot of their Amazon order history page.

The entire effort resembles Facebook’s Onavo Protect app that Apple banned last June and removed last August. That app, pitched as a way to “keep you and your data safe,” also alerted users about potentially malicious sites. In the process it gave Facebook the ability to analyze how people used their phones beyond the limits of Facebook apps. Tech Crunch noted this latest effort “sidesteps the App Store” and “may be a violation of Apple policy.”

There’s no “may” about it. As The Wall Street Journal reveals, Apple revoked Facebook’s permission to maintain the app, stating that it was designed to be used for internal functions within companies, not as a consumer product. Thus Facebook was in “clear breach” of Apple’s policies a statement released by the company asserted.

And in a move that caused disruption within Facebook, Apple also shut a number of internal apps used by Facebook employees, such as employee-only versions of Facebook Messenger, Workplace, and Instagram. These apps, known as “dogfood,” were heavily relied upon by company employees to communicate.

Seven hours after Tech Crunch published its story, Facebook told the website it would shut down the iOS version of the app. Yet as a little more digging by Tech Crunch revealed, Facebook failed to mention that it was being forced to do so by Apple.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was sent out to defend the data collection. In an interview with CNBC, she insisted that those involved went through a “rigorous consent flow” prior to opting into the program. “The important thing is that the people involved in that research project knew they were involved and consented,” she stated.

An unidentified Facebook spokesperson also defended the company. “Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App,” the spokesperson asserted. “It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”

Tech Crunch refuted all of it. “As we wrote yesterday night, Facebook did not publicly promote the Research VPN itself and used intermediaries that often didn’t disclose Facebook’s involvement until users had begun the signup process,” the website countered. “While users were given clear instructions and warnings, the program never stresses nor mentions the full extent of the data Facebook can collect through the VPN. A small fraction of the users paid may have been teens, but we stand by the newsworthiness of its choice not to exclude minors from this data collection initiative.”

A couple of tech experts put Facebook’s efforts in the proper perspective. “I find this behavior shameful. Taking advantage of people who do not understand the value of the data they generate,” said Claudiu Musat, director of research for Data, Analytics and AI at Swisscom tweeted. David Heinemeir Hansson, a Danish programmer and partner of web application company Basecamp, upped the ante: “I used to think a reasonable response to Facebook was simple: ‘break them up.’ But maybe the real solution here is more akin to ‘shut them down.’ Their incessant preying on kids and teenagers is beyond pale.”

Indeed. Yet Apple’s stance as a paragon of virtue rings a bit hollow. Despite NBC’s characterization of the animosity between the companies as a “growing philosophical rift in the tech industry between companies that make money off personal data [Facebook], and those that do not [Apple],” the heart of the issue for most people remains privacy — and honesty about when that privacy is breached.

In that regard, Apple has some explaining of its own to do. “Last week, Turkish security researcher Melih Sevim contacted The Hacker News and claimed to have discovered a flaw in Apple services that allowed him to view partial data, especially notes, from random iCloud accounts as well as on targeted iCloud users just by knowing their associated phone numbers,” the website reported.

Sevim allegedly told Apple about this in October 2018 and the company ostensibly fixed the problem by November. But when contacted by Hacker News, Apple was less than forthcoming regarding how long the breach remained open, how many users were affected, and whether there was evidence of malicious exploitation.

Last week it was also revealed that Apple was forced to disable its Group FaceTime feature because it allowed anyone to eavesdrop on iPhone, iPad, and Mac users via the microphone of those devices. And as the Sun reports, “Apple has come under further fire after it emerged the company may have known about the bug for an entire week before telling the world.”

In other words, there are no “good guys” here, only multinational corporations run by self-aggrandizing egotists. And while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s arrogance makes him an easier target, Dipayan Ghosh, a former Facebook employee and a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, notes that Apple chief Tim Cook’s own motives with regard to this story are hardly pristine. “It’s in Tim Cook’s commercial interests to make the case that the tremendous collection of data — and processing of it by machine learning for news feed tweaks and digital advertising — implicates consumer privacy,” he said.

In other words, it’s all about the money. Moreover, despite the ostensible animosity between the two companies, Apple restored Facebook’s ability to run the iPhone apps used by the social-media giant’s employees only two days after that ability was revoked.

Nothing to see here; move along.

Except that there is. “When a handful of monopolies control your phone service, your internet and your health care, how you pay at the grocery store and where you shop, your freedoms will also be monopolized,” warns columnist Daniel Greenfield, who further asserts that the only way to “stop the rise of Big Brother is to break up Big Data.”

As soon as possible. We’ve got nothing to lose but our increasing collectivism — and decreasing Liberty.

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