As they say, “if you’re not paying, you are the product.” When we use Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter, Gmail, Google, Instagram and any number of other “free” platforms, we users “pay” for the service with our attention, our personal data, our privacy, and a host of other intangibles, which are all packaged up and sold to advertisers who can target us with laser-like precision and the persistence of a honey badger.
Websites drop cookies and track us in our browsers. Apps on our phones take it several steps further, leveraging the fact that our phones are always on and almost always within reach. Those “free” apps on our phones all track us to a certain degree. They need access to various bits of data, like location, photos, contacts etc. in order to be able to do what they do. That’s okay, up to a limit. What’s not okay is when apps do a free-for-all attempt to grab everything our phones know about us (hint: it’s A LOT) for no obviously good reason.
This morning I woke up to a tweet by The Verge‘s Tom Warren that exposes all the tracking and identification data that the Facebook app collects from iPhone users. This is enabled by a new feature in iOS 14.3 which started rolling out yesterday.
It took Tom almost 20 seconds to scroll through the list of data Facebook uses to track and identify its users. Twenty seconds!
How much data does Facebook need? Do they really need all that information so that they can ensure a fat, bald, middle-aged straight man doesn’t get targeted ads for tampons?
I upgraded my iPhone to iOS 14.3 so I could see for myself.
It was an eye-opening experience. I knew what to expect when I looked at the privacy information for Facebook (thanks, Tom!), and since Instagram is owned by Facebook, it wasn’t a complete shock to see Instagram’s data Hoovering wasn’t much different. Actually, it’s exactly the same as Facebook.
You’ll note that Twitter isn’t much better. But, there are alarming categories of data that the Facebook and Instagram apps collect that Twitter doesn’t: Health & Fitness, Financial Info, Sensitive Info (WTF is that?!?!), and Other Data. Why does Zuckerberg and his gang need this? What do they do with this information?
I’ve been having my doubts about Facebook and Instagram since well before this revelation that Instagram and Facebook collect financial, health, and “sensitive” information. Ironically, privacy wasn’t really at the top of my list of gripes. I was mostly annoyed with their algorithms that seem to guarantee I don’t see posts from people that are important to me in a timely manner. I was annoyed with Instagram’s shitty interface on a small screen which doesn’t do photography justice, mine nor anyone else’s. I was annoyed that both Facebook and Instagram have become virtual shppoing centres first and foremost.
I’m no rube; I’ve always been aware of the privacy trade-offs we make when we install free apps on our phones, but this revelation was the straw that broke this camel’s back. Enough.
Ideally, I would just shut my Facebook and Instagram accounts and walk away. Problem is, all that would result in is me becoming isolated from friends and family; it’s just not practical to completely disconnect from the platforms (especially Facebook) where so many of “my peeps” hang out.
Taking my cue from the interviewees in The Social Dilemma, I have uninstalled Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp from my phone. My iPhone has been un-Zucked. I will access Facebook (less frequently) from a web browser that provides a somewhat more private (ha!) experience, and will allow me to stay connected without giving up financial, health and “sensitive” information.
As far as Instagram goes, goodbye! It’s a crappy app anyhow. Recent updates have turned it into a shopping mall, it provides no ability to manage your data (go ahead, just try to delete a bunch of photos from your stream), and arguably provides a terrible medium to share photos because it’s basically a phone-only experience.
Like my last post on Instagram today says: find me on Flickr. Flickr has always been my primary outlet for sharing photos and will remain so for the forseeable future. On Flickr you can see my photos with NO ADS (because I pay for an account – I’m a customer, not a product) in full resolution on any size screen. You can’t do that on Instagram.
Want to talk or chat with me? Find me on Skype.
Now, if Facebook backs down in the face of the inevitable controversy that’s brewing about all this, I might reconsider reinstalling Facebook and Messenger on my iPhone. Or not. Chances are I will have forgotten all about them by the time that transpires.