We can’t allow privacy to be traded for profit
I WAS at a toy shop the other day preparing to make yet another monetary offering to the god Mattel when the saleslady asked in her brightest voice: "Would you like 15 per cent off?"
No, I wouldn't, thanks, I said. "But you'll get all sorts of promotions and discounts and a birthday gift," the lady said.
I still didn't want it.
Because I know the real price of that 15 per cent discount, and all that free delightful stuff she wants to give me.
The real price is my privacy.
What she was really asking is if I would like her to report my purchase to Facebook, so it could make more money out of me. Yes, really.
That's Facebook's exciting new source of profit: tracking all of our lives, not just online, but offline too. Mark Zuckerberg is now selling your offline life - everything you do in your day, even when your computer is switched off and your phone is in your handbag.
Every purchase you make in a bricks-and-mortar store can be reported to Facebook, matched with your private Facebook account, and then compared with your browsing history across not just Facebook's platforms but the entire internet, as well as the ads you've clicked on or looked at recently, your photos, your communications and everything else.
Then Facebook sells that information to its advertisers: what's more likely to make you buy, what you're interested in, what you believe, who you love - everything. And remember, those advertisers can be anyone from retailers to political parties or lobby groups to foreign governments.
So, for example, the toy shop, which has recently bought a $50 ad on Facebook, asks me to sign up to their "loyalty club" with a 15 per cent discount, then gets me to tell them my email address, mobile number, birthdate, home address and credit card details. This is now standard.
You can't buy a cup of coffee without being asked for all this information.
You don't have to give the information, by the way, but if you don't, you don't get the discount. So let's say I do agree, and hand over all my details. The toy shop's customer database is already linked up with Facebook so it can get "richer data" about its customers, which is Facebook's promise.
So now Mark Z and his army of programmers can see that I bought Barbie Swimmin' Pup Pool Set. They can also see that two days earlier, I looked at a Barbie toy review on YouTube, searched for and then clicked on a story about six-year-olds' favourite toys in which I saw an ad for this particular toy shop, then I checked map directions from my home address to nearby toy stores.
They can see that on the day of my purchase, I looked at my bank balance, responded "coming" to an invitation to a sixth birthday party, reviewed a hairdresser I'd recently visited, wrote a whimsical post about lower back pain, Instagrammed a picture of the breakfast I'd just made for my family and sent a WhatsApp message to a group called "Kindy Mums Who Love Kmart", and then went to Kmart where I bought a roll of wrapping paper and some ribbon.
Facebook gleefully reports to the toy shop what it's learnt about my purchase: not just that I saw the shop's Facebook ad, but all the other things that might have prompted me to come into their store on that particular day, and all my other shopping habits: how much I probably earn, what I like to eat, who my friends are, any health concerns I might have.
Facebook can report back to the store (and all its other advertisers) that a few days later I shared a picture of a six-year-old girl playing with the new toy, what her mum said to me in her "thank you" message, and that I bought some anti-inflammatories for my back.
Now, I'm not deluded enough to think Facebook particularly cares about my fascinating life. But when you wrap me up with millions of other people just like me, then Facebook starts having a really valuable picture of consumer behaviour.
So how do I feel when I see Mark Zuckerberg doing a sad face on CNN, apologising for letting me down by allowing some creepy organisation controlled by Donald Trump's buddies to "scrape" data from its platform about Facebook users? I find it hilarious because selling our privacy is Facebook's core business. Every day, they think of a new way to monetise us. And every day, we tell Facebook something new about ourselves, and Facebook's unblinking algorithm remembers it forever.
Nobody's apologising for that. That is the whole point of Facebook. And Facebook has never really pretended it was anything else - not when it talks to advertisers, anyway.
Facebook's core function as a business is to mine its users' data for profit. The real Cambridge Analytica scandal, in Facebook's world view, appears to be that someone else, and not Facebook, was making the money for a change.
Next time someone offers you a discount, ask yourself why. While you're at it, ask yourself why it's free to use Facebook.
Here's the answer: because the real product is not Barbie. It's you.