Econ 1: Spring 2012: U.C. Berkeley: Answers for Sample Midterm 2
A Geometry Puzzle

Charles Stross: Little Brother Is Watching You

Charles Stross:

Not an April Fool: There is an app…. [C]omputer journalist John Brownlee wrote an essay…. First, a quote from John's essay….

"Girls Around Me" is a standard geolocation based maps app, similar to any other app that attempts to alert you to things of interest in your immediate vicinity…. [O]n the bottom left is a button that allows you to specify between whether you're interested in women, men or both. It's when you push the radar button… Girls Around Me went into radar mode, and after just a few seconds, the map around us was filled with pictures of girls who were in the neighborhood. Since I was showing off the app on a Saturday night, there were dozens of girls out on the town in our local area…

Now, here's the point. What "Girls Around Me" does is simple: it looks up your GPS location, then queries Facebook and FourSquare for people matching a simple search criterion (are they female?) who have checked in (or been checked in by their friends) in your vicinity. It then makes it really easy to pull up their publicly visible information--stuff such as age, occupation, favourite sports, what school they attended, and so on…. [Y]ou don't need a special purpose tool like "Girls Around Me" to do this, if you have a reasonably powerful Facebook query tool and know how to use it. I can't stress this strongly enough: the problem was not invented by SMS Services O.o.o. of Russia, who wrote the app. And banning the app will not make the problem go away.

What "Girls Around Me" does is make clear just how useless Facebook's security settings are…. [O]rdinary people are not all Bruce Schneier. Ordinary people with Facebook accounts tend to over-share… our social instincts encourage us to share information with everyone we can see, and to discount abstractions (such as the possibility that software bots thousands of miles away might be harvesting the photographs and information we put online in order to better target advertisements at us—or worse).

The problem is this: all social networks run on the principle that if you're not paying for the product, you are the product…. There's no point marketing bacon to Jews or Muslims, so religion is relevant. There's no point marketing turkey to vegans or wheat products to coeliacs, so dietary preferences and medical conditions are relevant. If a user is a member of a subculture associated with a distinctive clothing fashion, that information is relevant to garment vendors. And so on. So Facebook, Orkut, G+ and so on all attempt to induce their users to maximize their self-disclosure and to tie their accounts to as many useful third-party information sources as possible.

You may have noticed that Facebook provides privacy controls…. [But] it is not in Facebook's commercial interest to promote the use of privacy controls…. Moreover we are actively discouraged from maintaining any separation of spheres of identity…. Real human beings live complex lives in which they occupy different roles which are exposed to different people….

Look at Iran and imagine an app written for the Basij to make it easy to identify dissidents and form ad-hoc goon squads to proactively hunt them down….

But as I said earlier, the app is not the problem. The problem is the deployment by profit-oriented corporations of behavioural psychology techniques to induce people to over-share information which can then be aggregated and disclosed to third parties for targeted marketing purposes.