User data means power

The internet has made possible  what power structures have tried and, usually, failed to do throughout the history: knowing everything there is to know about their citizens. Now there is no need for anyone to ask us for information – we gladly give it away and we are doing this in larger and larger numbers.

Think about the first time you’ve connected to the internet: the sheer amount of information available was dazzling. You could travel the world in a few seconds without leaving your home. Everything other human being seemed closer than ever and things looked pretty safe as you were just one of the other millions of people connected to the internet. Anonymity instilled a sense of freedom that was not possible in the real life.

Years have passed, the internet improved, the number of internet connected users increased exponentially and some companies started wondering – who are this users and how can we find out more about them? Apparently – pretty much.

We had a look at how companies use large data to improve their marketing efforts. Facebook and Google are some of the biggest data-handlers in the world and by offering free web services such as social networking or search these companies gather hundred of millions of users on a daily basis. These users have certain interests, profiles, friend connections and are willing to give away all this information without much thought.

If, say, a Coca-Cola representative would approach us on the street and started asking us questions regarding personal data, interests in different areas,information about our friends we would be rather skeptical, wouldn’t we?

Actually that’s what basically happens every time we search something on Google, update our Facebook profile, read an article on the web or simply send an email. Even though some information is anonymized, even though there are laws that may interfere with privacy breaches, the truth is there are some companies that hold real time information on large masses, information that can be used either at a macro or micro scale. From individuals to countries such companies know a lot of things and became increasingly good at harnessing the power that lies in these bits of data.

Micro and macro implications

Micro implications

On a micro level individuals basically offer some of their most intimate information to companies that use it for marketing purposes. There is a saying stating that “if you are not sold anything, you are the product being sold”. That holds true to both companies mentioned above. There is no secret Facebook and Google make most of their revenues through advertising. To help increase advertising efficiency both companies need to know as many things as possible about the person viewing the ad.

Both companies thrive on information users offer, knowingly or not. Whether is the page you are viewing, information on your Facebook profile – you tell advertisers how to better sell their products.

Another implication of sharing so much data is that you become predictable. Even though we look at ourselves as unique, special individuals, the fact is we are not. We are creatures of habit and habits turn into patterns. When some important events in our lives happen our behavior is even more likely to become predictable. Target used customer data to find out when their buyers start dealing with pregnancy. Based on a series of products future mothers are more likely to purchase they managed to target those exact customers, sometimes even before their friends or family found out.

You might think that companies and other organizations can track you only if you choose to use your real identity. Actually no. There are several techniques developed to help deanonymize internet users. One of these techniques is based on stylometry, the analysis of writing style. Although information on this subject dates back a few centuries, the internet made possible the analysis of large chunks of data.

Be it your blog, your Facebook profile or movie reviews you posted online  the fact is you leave traces on the internet through your writing style. Even if you publish a text anonymously and make sure you are not traceable by classic means, stylometry can point towards you. Arvind Narayan, a computer scientist focused on “breaking data anonymization, and more broadly […] digital privacy, law and policy” explains here how this can happen, what are the necessary steps, what are technological requirements etc.

Macro implications

china flag
China is allegedly one of the leading cyber-warfare powers at the moment

Although micro implications are interesting, they are just the tip of the iceberg. With enough data anything is possible. And I mean everything. Think stock markets, military, health and epidemic research, economy, global intelligence. Basically all the power structures our civilization depends upon can find large data extremely interesting.

In 2010 China routed traffic intended to some very discrete US organizations through its servers for roughly 18 minutes. “Not too long”, one might think, but enough to cause a 300 page report for the US congress. If 18  minutes worth of internet traffic routing caused such a stir, imagine how much of an impact information passed through Facebook and Google have on the global political scene.

With enough data stock market crushes and bubbles could be predicted, social movements could be news before they even happen, just like military strikes or economic crises. One thing is for sure: there is great power in the data provided by users online.

Is Facebook trading information with Apple regarding its users? Facebook-Apple partnership?

This is the question that popped into my mind as I saw a Facebook ad leading to an iTunes Album I have previously bought four of songs from (this one). I bought the songs on my iPhone from the iTunes Music store.

I instantly started thinking how could had Apple (or Facebook for that matter) target me so well. I can now see three possible explanations here:

  1. Sheer coincidence. Maybe … just maybe … Apple happened to market that album to the demographic group I happen to be in. Facebook had just shown me an ad pointing to the exact album I had purchased some songs from. Those 4 songs out more that 20 million songs currently available on iTunes. Not very likely, I presume.
  2. Apple and Facebook started an partnership and are now sharing user data. That means that right now Facebook may have access to my contacts, application data I use, purchase history, browsing history and others. Apple has access to my Facebook data, off-iOS related browsing history, Facebook related purchase intent and so on. More likely.
  3. Apple is using data from my Apple account to remarket products on other web platforms. Such as Facebook. This might mean that Apple is not actually sharing data but might be using data collected on the iOS to target users on other platforms. I believe there is an automated marketing system setup on Facebook for ads that run and target users based on their previous purchase history. Very likely
  4. Apple is using application data to target users. Possibly without express consent from the Apple Developers. I use different emails for Facebook and Apple login. This got me thinking about possible data usage by Apple without express consent from Facebook – or other developers. As I believe an integration with Facebook Ads would be impossible in this case without a partnership between the two companies. I would rather rule this one out.

Apple-Facebook partnership highly probable

Having two of the fastest and largest growing technology companies partnering is pretty much amazing in terms of products they could develop. However several privacy and monopoly questions might arise. Apple was part of a privacy controversy in 2010, regarding the iOS 4 privacy policy:

“The revised policy states that Apple has the right to share this information with 3rd parties who provide services to the customer, including advertising and promotion services. Apple also states that “it may be necessary” to provide this [real-time] information in response to “requests from public and governmental authorities within or outside your country of residence or if [Apple] determines that for purposes of national security, law enforcement, or other issues of public importance, disclosure is necessary or appropriate…. Additionally, in the event of a reorganization, merger, or sale we may transfer any and all personal information we collect to the relevant third party.”

The revised policy does not make any distinction between warrant-based and warrantless searches, nor provide what criteria would trigger the sharing of personal real-time information with government entities, nor allow an opt-out for the location-based information.”

Apple, and all the other technology companies for that matter, don’t really deal well with privacy. Mark Zuckerberg is known for stating that the age of privacy is over.

While that might be true and the younger generations are letting go of old-timey privacy concerns I still want my data taken care of with a bit of responsibility. After all I am a paying customer to Apple and not just a target for advertising. While I do appreciate a more contextual advertising as opposed to classic mass communication I believe I and all the other Apple users have the right to share our my information to whomever I choose.

Is there more to the Facebook-Apple partnership?

On one hand we have Apple with more than enough cash than it needs (110 billion dollars to be more precise). On the other hand we have one extremely high potential technology company that might change the way humans interact and is not doing very well on the stock market right now (Facebook stocks have dropped 47% from the IPO and keep going down).

Apple can take advantage on the blow Facebook took on the market and buy stocks that, in my opinion, are sure to rise again. Facebook could do really well with such an unexpected help. Both companies would benefit from such a move:

  • Apple is reaching a innovation plateau and it needs a young, visionary leader or product that might replace Jobs. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg could fill the gap. Although Zuckerberg is still young and inexperienced he has a certain charisma that could develop in the future. Apple fans need an icon, they need innovation. Also – let’s not forget that Facebook is an one billion users market that Apple could turn into consumers.
  • Facebook is not harnessing the huge potential it has. Facebook gaming, social commerce, mobile are all things that are there but the Facebook team cannot yet capitalize on the growth. Apple is doing really well in all those areas and could share some of the knowledge.

In the end – maybe Apple will not take over Facebook but such a move would benefit both companies and is sure to add at least 10-15 years in the spotlight for them. Unfortunately such a technology behemoth will not be taken lightly by the Federal Trade Commision so the two will have to find ways to find ways to address this.