There is a scene in Dexter, the mid-00s story of a police officer-turned vigilante serial killer, where the show’s namesake is facing increasing pressure of being found out. Sergeant James Doakes, a suspicious former S.E.A.L, confronts him in an office – but finds in Dexter a cold and non-caring gaze.
“No matter what you try,” says Dexter, “no matter when, no matter how hard you work, I’ll always be a step ahead of you for one simple reason: I own you.” Then Dexter head-butts Doakes in the face.
Doakes believes that he will be able to prove Dexter’s guilt by using good ol’ fashioned Police Work and (slightly unethical) investigation. He’s nothing without trust in the process. Dexter knows that he can fix any problem he has with a some plastic wrap and an assortment of sharp objects.
For the most part, Dexter gets away with it. Rule number one: Don’t Get Caught.
For years now, that’s kind of what the relationship between Big Tech companies and users has been like.
This week, the latest app to trend and run afoul of the people was FaceApp, an AI-based photo editor that offers an incredibly compelling filter which makes you look very old.
A few hours after social media was flooded with the wrinkled faces of the Jonas Brothers and the slicked back grey hair of everyone you know, reports started surfacing about the app’s background. A quick read of FaceApp’s terms and conditions revealed that using the app all but volunteered your image to the Russian company. What they did with it from there was entirely up to them.
Soon, everyone was a super fan of digital privacy.
People freaked out about where their image could end up; others jumped onto rumours that FaceApp had access to your entire camera roll – even images you had not elected to apply the filter to. In the US, the Democratic National Committee warned 2020 presidential campaigns not to use the app. Soon after, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer called on the FBI to investigate the app.
Over more than a decade, the jump from offline to online has been rapid and confusing. In doing so, people have given up a right to privacy they would usually hold dear. This is a cycle that builds, sometimes for years, until one or two users point out “hey, maybe we shouldn’t do that,” and set off a firestorm of essays and tweets and #deletefacebook campaigns that revolve around the idea of lost privacy.
Like Dexter and Doakes, the difference between the people behind social platforms and the people that use them is simple: one group is desperately trying to continue their warpath, something that is hugely rewarding to them and them alone, and the other group trusts in the system, believing it was made to serve them, guilt free.
Probably the number one thing worth constantly reminding yourself of when thinking about Big Tech and social media is these leaked chat logs from Mark Zuckerberg, the rosy-cheeked founder of Facebook. The messages, from the early days of Facebook, show Zuckerberg boasting about having over 4,000 emails, addresses, and pictures from users. When a friend asks him how he managed that, he replies with typical, totally cool, Tech CEO bravado: “People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They “trust me”. Dumb fucks.”
Zuckerberg later told the New Yorker he regretted the messages. Of course he does! At the very least because it opened a window into how he – and many others in Silicon Valley – view their millions of users.
For all of the screaming that FaceApp’s return to the public sphere caused there are loud echoes, bouncing off the walls, from other moments in time. As pointed out by Dave Gershgorn in OneZero, it’s not the only tool that’s ripping your data off. Google, Facebook, Yahoo: everyone’s doing it.
“If you use Google or Facebook you’re already inside a global panopticon of advertising data and tracking pixels,” writes Gershgorn, also referencing a report from NBC News that details how IBM created a dataset of more than a million people by scraping images publicly available on Flickr.
The reality is this: if you’re online in 2019 it’s highly likely that you don’t own the exclusive rights to your own face. That’s scary to think about – and definitely not good – but it is also the result of millions of people endlessly agreeing to a deal with a conglomerate mass of company’s they mistakenly trusted.
While it’s certainly not the case with FaceApp, people are socially and economically reliant on social media and the internet. More than we like to think about. If it was socially feasible for all of us to agree to log off we would do it – but, sadly, it is not. That brings with it a sacrifice, and an agreement with Big Tech that even if we know they’re screwing us, we’ll just have to be okay with that to a certain degree.
FaceApp is scary, apparently, because it is Russian – and we’re all very scared of the Russians these days. And TikTok, that rapidly growing video app from China? We’re skeptical of that as well. Such skepticism is good. But scolding people who are upset because another company has suddenly wrapped its fingers around their data doesn’t get us very far. It’s an impulse we should probably celebrate.
Yahoo, an American company, was the victim of one of the biggest data breaches in history when billions of user accounts were impacted. Facebook, an American company, went through its own security issues in September, when almost 50 million user accounts were impacted. Recently, Facebook received a $5 billion fine that actually increased Zuckerberg’s net worth by $1 billion. It’s almost like the national origin of these companies has nothing to do with the actual globalised issue.
Privacy online is a lie, and everyone desperately wants to believe it. Like Dexter’s psychotic, murderous, journey through Miami, there is no way to return to a rules-based order. The real answer is one we can’t bear, and arguably can’t even do: end it all and log off.