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You might never join Facebook, but a zombie you — sewn together from scattered bits of your personal data — is still sitting there in sort-of-stasis on its servers waiting to be properly animated if you do sign up for the service. It has long since passed the tipping point where it can act as a distributed data network that knows something about almost everyone.
One such example was flagged to TechCrunch on Saturday when one of the users was informed by Facebook they had been affected by its latest breach found it had harvested an email address they had never personally handed over.
This behaviour casts Facebook as the Borg of the digital world: It also underlines exactly why the NSA wants a backdoor into this type of digital treasure trove. So really, forget the futuristic Borg: Better choose your friends carefully then. Not that your real friends are likely aware they are acting as guardians of your data either. Facebook says it uses the data it mines on you from others to power its friend recommendation feature. Which means the friend suggestion thumbnails that periodically crop up to help you build out your Facebook network, based on people its algorithms think you might know.
The key issues here — beyond the overarching privacy theme — are transparency and consent. Facebook is very coy about explaining what it is doing. But that does not excuse Facebook treating your personal data as the property of another person who may or may not care where that data ends up. Why avoid spelling that out? Because it inevitably sounds creepy. Because, well, it inevitably is creepy.
When people upload their contact lists or address books to Facebook, we try to match that data with the contact information of other people on Facebook in order to generate friend recommendations.
As a result, if a person went to download an archive of their Facebook account through our Download Your Information DYI tool, they may have been provided with additional email addresses or telephone numbers for their contacts or people with whom they have some connection.
This contact information was provided by other people on Facebook and was not necessarily accurate, but was inadvertently included with the contacts of the person using the DYI tool. Of course Facebook is not the only tech giant intent on amassing data dossiers on as many Internet users as possible. Google has drawn the attention of European data protection regulators , for example, after it consolidated more than 60 individual product privacy policies into one joined up policy — allowing it to join the dots of usage of its different products to sketch more detailed profiles of those users.
It remains to be seen whether the investigation by six European Union member states will force it to make changes. The possibility of fines is on the table. There is also the argument that the cat is out of the bag. That these huge data-mining operations are now so mature, extensive and well used that any kind of regulatory unpicking is futile. Not least because the quantity of data being gathered on human behaviour is only going to grow — likely becoming even more personal and intimate, with wearable devices enabling the harvesting of physical data points, too.
And yet that actually sounds like a lot more weight for the argument that these huge data-harvesting operations really need proper scrutiny stat. It has to be said that data-protection regulators have been extremely flat-footed in their response to the implications of systematic consolidation and cross-referencing of personal data.
The lack of transparency about how these algorithms work has certainly helped the companies that created them to grow their user-data mountains in carefully crafted shade. But a little more light is now being directed onto those darkened places , and onto the control-minded organisations such as the NSA inevitably attracted by the scale of the data-mining operations going on behind some of the shiniest consumer facades in tech town.