Innocence vs Data Theft

21 April, 2019

Innocence vs Data Theft, Phil Cosker

Facebook has become an important communications platform for many not-for-profit media, arts, social and community organisations. These organisations perform valuable functions for people across many settings, places and countries. I suggest that many of them feel they have no alternative but to use Facebook because it reaches the organisation’s followers with such ease and is accessible to so many people. I think some of these organisations see their use of Facebook as posing them a dilemma.

On the face of it (no pun intended) Facebook is user friendly, ubiquitous and ‘free’. But is it really free? Is it safe?

Facebook has the ability to know and search all the data that all users produce and the data which organisations garner from their supporters. Further, it can also access the data that in turn leads to other sources and so on.

Data can, and is, sold with our tacit agreement. We all know this – it’s not a secret. Why do we allow it?

Are there dangers inherent in socially driven organisations using Facebook as their central means of communication? Could there be a better platform(s) matched to the needs of such organisations and values rather than to be enmeshed in the profit driven motivation of Facebook with its masquerade of ‘friendship’?

In 2011 I published (on-line) a short dystopian novella ‘Weber, Maria & Din (WMD)’[1]. It is set in England [2] in the future – a country managed by ‘The Hierarchy’. Each person, (except members of The Hierarchy), is fitted with a Personal Identification Device (PID) in their upper right arm enabling them to be under constant surveillance, aka, management. It’s not a good place to be if you’re a dissenter.

It’s not a bad story but it was naïve.

When I was writing WMD during 2010 & 2011 I didn’t realise the extent and depth of Facebook and Google’s infiltration and exploitation of what was once thought of as the private sphere. I had imagined a future where people were forced to become victims of surveillance never realising that we would VOLUNTARILY surrender everything about ourselves to a company that told us we could trust them.

We have become data. We are not people but commodities to be sold. We have given ourselves to the monster that is surveillance capitalism. We have fed the machines and engines and as we use them over and over again we cannot ever satisfy their hunger, their lust, for the almighty $.

Donald Rumsfeld was the 13th & 21st United States Secretary for Defense. He was also a warmonger.

What follows is a transcript of a Pentagon news briefing he gave on February 12th 2002. He was famous for many things: not least for his adamant assertion that Iraq possessed weapon of mass destruction (WMD)[3] to legitimise the invasion of that country by the USA and the UK governments.

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free (sic) countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

This might be regarded as the equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer for the Surveillance industries – both public and private – that make up Surveillance Capitalism. Rumsfeld’s prayer brings results – on an individual basis there are less and less unknown unknowns about each of us and that’s scary. One day we may have no secrets from the state under the ever-watchful eyes of the mega digital data Stasi companies.

As time passed I became more aware of what was happening with data. The US presidential campaign with all its manipulation, fake news and fears of falsified data and alleged Russian interventions in the election process raised the alarm. In the UK the Brexit campaign managed by Cummings showed exactly what was going on and how ‘democracy’ could so easily be set aside and people manipulated through e.g. targeted Facebook ads. The exposure of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s complicity in its nefarious operations were the final straw for me and I closed my Facebook account for good.

A Lebanese student has a visa to enter the USA to study at Harvard. Trump has enacted a law that allows US immigration officers the right to inspect the emails and social media interactions of any person suspected of being a threat to the USA. This right covers a period of five years prior to entry to the country.

The Lebanese student is, so far as immigration officers are concerned, a threat; he’s ‘foreign’. He is interrogated. His emails and social media accounts are inspected. He is denied entry and sent home. His interactions with ‘friends’ have contained criticism of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinian people.

These are messages he denies sending, stating they have been sent to him and are not his views. I have no way of judging if this is true or not. What is possible is that he is being punished for what his ‘friends’ have said rather than what he has himself said.

What is true is that the state’s knowledge of personal data and the right of access to it is enshrined in US law.

My eyes were half shut until I started to read Shoshana Zuboff’s sensational ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism – The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power.’ Please read it – I can’t do it justice here. As Zadie Smith has written, “Zuboff is concerned with the largest act of capitalist colonisation ever attempted, but the colonisation is of our minds, our behaviour, our free will, our very selves.”

If we want ‘free’ internet services then the price we pay is our privacy where every click, ‘like’ and search can be monetised for profit by the owner of the service masquerading under the banner of social worth and responsibility.

Zuboff quotes Larry Page on Google’s business. “… Sensors are really cheap … Storage is Cheap. Cameras are cheap. People will generate enormous amounts of data … Everything you’ve ever seen or experienced will become searchable. Your whole life will be searchable.”

And of course what is found is be sold as a commodity. Our behaviours are for sale. Our permission is validated by the use of the platform. Tick the box. Permission given. Self-ownership gone.

I have been a happy and ignorant user of Gmail. Google has the ability to scan all my emails to see what I buy on line – I didn’t know that. It can, of course, ‘know’ more and more about my views of the world. I’m now looking for an alternative email provider.

We are commodities: the intricacies and emotions of love, family, life, birth, joy, infidelity, stupidity, death and pain are all there for exploitation. Why do we let ‘them’ sell such intimate experiences? Our preferences are their profit.

And who the hell needs to know about what I did this morning? Why do I need a wall? If the only form of self-identity we can find is on Facebook then we’re all in deep trouble. If this is the only place where we think we may be heard then democracy is even more at risk than it already is from Johnson and Cummings.

Jack Shenker’s “Now we have your attention: The New Politics of the People”  (published on 19 September by Bodley Head) was previewed in the Guardian ‘Review’ on August 31 2019.

Shenker describes the creation of a new Trade Union ‘United Voices of the World – UVW’ and how outsourced cleaners, Deliveroo workers and Uber drivers and other non-unionised workers are using the data systems that control their work against the owners of the companies who employ them as those companies are light in terms of middle management and there is no one to nip grievances in the bud and stop coordinated strike action between workers who would not normally take unified action.  AND of course UVW use their own website to help this happen.

I’m no expert on how to solve the dilemmas we all face.

But there are things we can do.

Though ‘Google it’ has become the synonym for ‘search’ there are other search engines such as DuckDuckGo. Who write:

“DuckDuckGo is an Internet search engine that emphasizes protecting searchers’ privacy and avoiding the filter bubble of personalized search results. DuckDuckGo distinguishes itself from other search engines by not profiling its users and by showing all users the same search results for a given search term, and emphasizes returning the best results, rather than the most results, generating those results from over 400 individual sources, including crowdsourced sites such as Wikipedia, and other search engines like Bing, Yahoo!, and Yandex. As of August 2019, it had 44,196,092 daily direct searches on average.”

The ubiquity of Facebook is a problem.

The real problem is that we need to create an alternative platform(s). Perhaps the only way to do that is by a cooperative collective effort that puts humanity and dignity before power and greed. A platform created through the pooling and sharing of knowledge and resources. A platform that values each person and honours their right to control their own lives. A platform that doesn’t exploit innocence.

Fundamentally, we need to always remember that the digital world of data is not a safe place.

The age of digital innocence is over. There is nothing benign about digital capitalism.

[1] Available to read free of charge at

[2] Wales & Scotland are independent republics and there is no longer an English colony on the island of Ireland.

[3] In my WMD novel a child, Din, has been weaponised as an assassin.


About the Writer

Phil Cosker

Born in Cardiff, Wales, Phil has been writing full time for the past 14 years.   Inspired and fascinated by fiction since childhood Phil started writing in his early teens.  Alongside his writing he has also been creating photography for 50 years, exploring the still image and the written word.

In recent years, Phil’s writing has run the gamut from feature film screenplay to novels to writer in residence to children’s books and more.


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