Over the years I’ve often turned to my friend Michael Jones for guidance about the cultural and social effects of technology.
For instance, five years ago I did an Atlantic interview with him about how the dawn of omnipresent mapping-on-your-phone was about to change personal and collective life. (He had been one of the inventors of Google Earth.) A few years before that, when Jones was the “chief technology advocate” at Google, he guided my wife, Deb, and me through the implications of having Deb’s Gmail account get taken over by a hacker in West Africa. My article about the episode was called “Hacked,” and it was an early klaxon about the importance of using two-stage sign-on systems. (If you’re still a holdout, install them now!) You can read more about Michael Jones’s background at the bottom of this piece. It’s relevant to note that he and I disagree on many issues of national politics, he taking a much more pure-libertarian approach than I do.
Earlier today I noted an op-ed in the New York Times by the law professor and technology-policy writer Tim Wu, saying that Facebook’s problems with privacy-protection were too fundamental to be repaired. (Instead, Wu argued for creation of nonprofit alternatives.) Michael Jones responded with the proposition below, which I’m quoting with his permission.
Here is what someone who has made his living in the details (and innovations) of the “big data” world thinks about the Facebook predicament. He begins by mentioning Wu’s article:
WRT the article you mention and the subject in general, I am your doctor. Let me explain the patient’s disease and treatment.
The superficial (though global and important) issue is that FB allowed its partners/customers to access/copy/appropriate the personally identifiable information (PII) of 70+ million people.
The secondary issue is that one of the thousands of these PII recipients [that is, Cambridge Analytica] passed the data to those who could weaponize it and use to against America, FB’s homeland. This is the drama of the moment, the ideas of “rogue application of data”, “improper handoff of data”, and “unintended usage against FB policy which therefore need to be strengthened.” You’ll hear noise about this when Mark Zuckerberg is questioned by Congress.
This is news and drama. But it is historical. Like a tragic accident with deaths and maiming, however terrible, it is done. There may be grave penalties, but no matter what they are, they cannot undo what has already happened—the harm, the threats, the future uses of that PII.
More meaningful is what happens going forward.
The idea of “as before, but better,” which is MZ’s road show theme, could only work in a world where nobody who decides understands the core issues. Sheryl Sandberg’s sudden disappearance makes me wonder if perhaps this very issue is why—she well-understands the difference [between Facebook’s policies and Google’s, from her experience as a former VP at Google] and would not be able to pretend otherwise to the congresspersons and regulators.
This is where I’d like to share perspective with you about the real problem and the only known cure. A topic hopefully made clear by comparison with Google, analogy with you, and a review of the nature of targeted advertising.