I’m very interested in the way in which surveillance and control appear at the intersection of material and virtual worlds, and a topic that has been appearing in marketing articles recently, ‘geofencing’ is causing me some concern. According to Wikipedia (as of 213/11/05), a geo-fence is a virtual perimeter for real-world geographic areas. It seems to be largely connected to mobile commerce and the ongoing desire of marketers to be able to sell to capture customers dynamically, on the move in real-time (see also the piece by myself and Kirstie Ball on ‘Brandscapes of Control’ from earlier this year). There have also been uses of this kind of technology in parole-violation monitoring and child-protection, where alerts can be sent if a device carried by the users strays outside a certain area.

However there is also another aspect of geofencing that works slightly differently: this has been highlighted recently by Russia Today, which reported on discussion at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference into attempts by US police departments, hardware manufacturers and service providers to block users from certain services based on geographical location or particular events. This would essentially make the kinds of actions taken by the Egyptian authorities during the Arab Spring in closing Internet access more dynamic and targeted. So, the example used by RT is protestors trying to organize using Facebook could find that they were unable to access the social media site in particular places etc.

As we use the Internet and Social Media more in more intimate ways to organize all aspects of our lives, the question of not just monitoring but restriction becomes ever more pertinent. If the tracking of objects and people in real-time in order to permit (and speed up) or restrict (or slow down) flows, is one of the key current goals of surveillance, then this interface between virtual and material becomes particularly important and one to which we need to pay a lot more attention.


Why I’m finished with Facebook

In changing its rules so that we can no longer exlude our private data from searches, Facebook has now gone too far down the lines of exploiting our apathy and/or good will, and I will very soon be deactivating my Facebook account. This has been a long road, and Facebook has gradually encroached further and further on the unacceptable in its quest to squeeze every possible drop of commercial value out of the personal data of its users.

It’s always difficult to leave a system that feels as if it has become central to your social life, but this is exactly the feeling that Facebook relies on for its users not to leave, however much they exploit them. As Kirstie Ball and I wrote in our piece ‘Brandscapes of Control’ earlier this year:

“It should be recognised… that brandscapes remain both an emerging apparatus and an attractive apparent solution to risk and complexity in a world where data underpins everything from purchase to social relations, and where those data are too numerous and complex for any individual to parse. Thus it is not so much a ‘logic prison’ (Mitchell, 2003) but, if it is analogous to confinement at all, it is an affective prison, not because one openly emotionally identifies with it, but because it begins to mark the boundaries of emotional range and becomes simply too inconvenient or uncomfortable to be without. Outside the brandscape, the world might seem not just dangerous but also painful, dull, limited and lacking in content: the dead, heavy ‘meatspace’ of William Gibson’s retired cyberspace jockeys in the Sprawl Trilogy, or the reality without compulsory drugs in Huxley’ Brave New World” (Murakami Wood and Ball, Marketing Theory, 2013 – but you can find a pre-proof verison on

Maybe I should pay more attention to my own work! However, it’s undeniable that social networking adds something positive to life. The questions are what you are prepared to give up for that or, if that is a question you refuse to accept is necessary, whether there is a better socio-economic model for social networking than relying on basically sociopathic corporations to provide it for us. I have tried to persuade people to join Diaspora but it’s too badly designed and unattractive to use easily. Linked In is dull, but for professional notifications etc., it works just fine and that’s all I use it for. I do have a Twitter account, though I’ve hardly used it and in general they’ve shown themselves to be a little more concerned with users’ rights and feelings. Maybe I’ll have to look at Google+ again, but Google isn’t fundamentally better than Facebook just not quite as bad.

And, in the end, all of these corporate systems are entirely infliltrated by National Security Agency surveillance systems and so Brazil’s suggestion of a non-US internet is interesting here as are murmerings about a DiY version, mesh-nets that would link together on a more ad-hoc basis. I’ll be writing about some of these suggestions soon. But in the meantime, it will soon be ‘So long, Facebook…’

The Unbearable Shallowness of Technology Articles… or, what Facebook Graph Search really means.

Wired has a feature article about Facebook’s new search tool. The big problem with it is that its vomit-inducing fawning over Facebook’s tech staff. In trying to make this some kind of human interest story – well, actually the piece starts off with Mark Zuckerberg’s dog, you see, he is human after all – of heroic tech folk battling with indomitable odds to create something amazing – what in science fiction criticism would be called an Edisonade – it almost completely muffles the impact of what a piece like this should be foregrounding, which is about what this system is, what is has been programmed to do and where it’s going.

And this is what Graph Search does, very simply: it is a search engine that will enable complex, natural language interrogation of data primarily but not limited to Facebook. So instead of trying to second-guess what Google might understand when you want to search for something, you would simply be able tell you what you ask. And because this is primarily ‘social’ – or about connection, and you should have already given up enough information to Facebook to enable it to ‘graph’ you so that it knows you, the results should supposedly be the kind if things you really wanted from your query. Supposedly. An FB developer in the article describes this as “a happiness-inducing experience” and further says, “We’re trying to facilitate good things.” However what this ‘happiness’ means, just like what ‘friendship’ means in the FB context, and what “good” means, just like the use of ‘evil’ in Google’s motto, is rather different than how we might understand such a term outside these contexts.

In the article, one example demonstrated by the developer is as follows:

[He] then tried a dating query — “single women who live near me.” A group of young women appeared onscreen, with snippets of personal information and a way to friend or message them. “You can then add whatever you want, let’s say those who like a certain type of music,” [he] said. The set of results were even age-appropriate for the person posing the query.

So when Mark Zuckerberg is quoted in the article saying that Graph Search is “taking Facebook back to its roots”, he seems to mean creeping on girls, as was, let us not forget, the main intention of the early Harvard version. Doesn’t this generate exactly the concern that the notorious ‘Girls Around Me’ app encountered? As the title of my favourite tumblr site has it, this isn’t happiness. Or it’s the happiness of the predator, the pervert and the psychopath.

But more fundamentally, this isn’t about privacy, or even online stalking. In fact, in many ways, both are side-issues here. This is about control and access: control over my information and how I access other information, not just on Facebook but in general. To me, the plans outlined for Graph Search look worrying, even outside of my idea of what would constitute happiness, because they have nothing to do with how I use Facebook or how I would want to use it. I don’t use Facebook as my gateway to the Web and I am never going to. As Eli Pariser pointed out in The Filter Bubble a couple of years back, that would both be limiting of my experience of the Web (and increasingly therefore of my communications more broadly) and give one organisation way too much power over both that experience and the future of the Web. But this does seem to be how Facebook wants it to be, and further, I suspect that, just like Bill Gates before him with his .NET initiative and other schemes, and just like the walled garden locked-in hardware that Apple produces, Zuckerberg is more interested in Facebook colonizing the entire online experience, or layering itself so entirely, tightly and intimately over the online world that the difference between that world and Facebook would seem all but invisible to the casual user.

These developments are dramatic enough in themselves. Never mind fluffy stories of heroic techies and their canine sidekicks.

Facebook learns nothing

Having been strongly criticised over its ‘Places’ feature for its lack of understanding of the concept of ‘consent’ in data protection, and why ‘opt-in’ is better for users than ‘opt-out’ when it comes to new ‘services’ (i.e: ways they can share your data with other organisations), Facebook is doing it again.

Between today and tomorrow, the new Facebook feature called “Instant Personalization” goes into effect. The new setting shares your data with non-Facebook sites and it is automatically set to “Enabled”.

To turn it off: Go to Account>Privacy Settings>Apps & Websites>Instant Personalization>edit settings & uncheck “Enable”.

(Or of course, you can just ‘Turn Off All Platform Apps” too!)

The really important thing is that if your Facebook Friends don’t do this, they will be sharing info about you as well. So, copy this and repost to yours…

(Thanks to Lorna Muir for this alert)

Facebook face-recognition

Reports are that US users can now use an automated face-recognition function to tag people in photos posted to the site. To make it clear, this is not the already dubious practice of someone else tagging you in a photo, but an automated service – enter a picture and the system will search around identifying and tagging.

As a Facebook engineer is quoted as saying:

“Now if you upload pictures from your cousin’s wedding, we’ll group together pictures of the bride and suggest her name… Instead of typing her name 64 times, all you’ll need to do is click ‘Save’ to tag all of your cousin’s pictures at once.”

Once again, just as with Facebook Places, the privacy implications of this do not appear to have been thought through (or more likely just disregarded) and it’s notable that this has not yet been extended to Canada, where the federal Privacy Commissioner has made it very clear that Facebook cannot unilaterally override privacy laws.

Let’s see how this one plays out, and how much, once again, Facebook has to retrofit privacy settings…