Facebook Is Watching You

There's an old saying in media that if you're getting something for free, then you are the product. When you listen to commercial radio, the advertisers are the customers, and you're the product that the station sells to their customers. But if you're the company selling those eyeballs or ears, it's best to convince the humans attached to them that you care deeply about them and have their best interests at heart. So I'm wondering exactly how Facebook thinks it could persuade its billion users that this is anything less than horrifying:

Facebook Inc. is testing technology that would greatly expand the scope of data that it collects about its users, the head of the company’s analytics group said Tuesday.

The social network may start collecting data on minute user interactions with its content, such as how long a user's cursor hovers over a certain part of its website, or whether a user's newsfeed is visible at a given moment on the screen of his or her mobile phone, Facebook analytics chief Ken Rudin said Tuesday during an interview.

I guess this isn't too surprising, since Facebook is legendarily disdainful of its users' privacy. But wow. Tracking your cursor movements? That is a whole new level of creepy. And what are the users getting in return for allowing their real-time movements to be monitored in this way? Absolutely nothing, it appears. Facebook is getting information that allows it to sell more ads and make more money. But you? Nada.

I'm reading Dave Eggers' The Circle, and while I'm only about halfway through (and things are obviously about to take a turn for the sinister), I had a different reaction to one important element of the book than Lee Konstantinou did. Lee talks about Eggers seeming uncertain and unsure about what the problem with The Circle (a kind of mashup of Facebook and Google, with some Twitter and PayPal thrown in) is and what it represents, but the ambiguity strikes me as intentional and even compelling, despite the fact that Eggers' satire isn't exactly subtle. When The Circle's personnel make presentations about new products they're planning (for instance, cheap, lollipop-shaped cameras that will become ubiquitous and record every moment of existence on Earth), they're almost persuasive in their enthusiasm that this will be a wonderful thing for humanity, even as what they're proposing is also ghastly.

Maybe my opinion about this will change once I finish the book, but it seems to me that Eggers is trying to capture the fact that it's no accident that these companies are so successful. For instance, Gmail really is a great email system. So yeah, it reads your emails and pushes advertising at you based on the content. But you can ignore that, right? And people love what Facebook offers them. It seems to me that most of the time when one of these behemoths rolled out a service people rejected, it wasn't because it was too invasive but because the benefits weren't attractive enough.

So you'd think people won't want Facebook wants to track their cursor movements unless they're getting something in return. But I'm sure the company will come up with something to tell them. Just wait until they debut the software that uses your computer's camera to track your eye movements and monitor your heart rate.

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