Andrew Vine: Big Brother – the Facebook friend with a hidden agenda

Facebook is in the spotlight.
Facebook is in the spotlight.
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GEORGE Orwell predicted it with frightening prescience, and what he foresaw has come to pass.

The unceasing surveillance. The manipulation of personality. The destruction of privacy.

The key elements of Orwell’s nightmare vision of a totalitarian society that he laid out in Nineteen Eighty Four, first published in 1949, have all come true.

Big Brother knows intimate details of the lives of billions via social media and he hasn’t needed to be an all-powerful dictator to get them. He’s smiled charmingly, and been welcomed as a friend.

In the novel, the telescreen in Winston Smith’s home that cannot be turned off monitors everything he says.

And in our own time, the telescreen has materialised in the form of the smartphone in our pocket, rarely if ever turned off, which uses apps to quietly harvest reams of information about us, our likes, dislikes, shopping preferences, friends, what we search for online, where we go.

We ought to be deeply uneasy about this, but we aren’t. A complete loss of privacy and the giving away of details that belong to nobody but ourselves has been accepted as the new normal.

Just how unquestioningly we have accepted Big Brother into our lives – and the implications for how we stay safe – is likely to be set out today when the National Cyber Security Centre’s Cyber UK conference opens in Manchester.

It will be even more forcefully underlined tomorrow when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appears before an oversight panel of the United States House of Representatives to explain how the private data of possibly 87m people was harvested as part of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

That is such a mind-boggling figure it is hard to comprehend. Equally difficult to credit is how a company that is essentially the reflection of a single man has gained such a degree of power and influence over the lives of billions of people, yet is subject to so little regulation.

No democratic government, or its agencies, is subject to so little oversight.

In this country, surveillance is tightly controlled. The security agencies which monitor and thwart terrorist plots are overseen by strict Parliamentary and judicial regulation, which is at it should be. Without sanction, surveillance cannot take place. The law-abiding are protected from snooping by the state.

Yet a private company that has effortlessly persuaded millions to let it peer over their shoulders into virtually every corner of their lives can more or less do as it pleases.

The smiling, dressed-down Zuckerberg in his grey T-shirt, all folksy friendliness as he spouts saccharine platitudes about wanting to bring the world together and be a force for good, has gone out of his way to appear as unthreatening as possible.

But the reality is that he has created what ought to be regarded as a sinister global surveillance operation. Orwell could hardly have imagined the ease with which this has been accomplished, or how willingly people have been led into it.

The notion that a massive corporation worth more than £400bn, which is largely unaccountable for its activities, is a benevolent presence in the lives of those who enrich it by posting their details is preposterous, especially given Facebook’s lack of transparency.

There was simply no surprise in the data of millions being harvested and used without their consent. The surprise was that it had not happened sooner, because data is an increasingly valuable commodity.

Not only that, but Facebook admitted last week that scammers could have harvested its users’ phone numbers and emails, potentially exposing them to identity fraud.

We have sleepwalked into this new Big Brother reality, and it has taken the revelation of how easily the data of millions can be so cynically manipulated to wake people up.

It takes a shock to make people realise how much they are revealing. A young relative of mine abandoned Facebook when a man began stalking her after being able to work out where she lived from the posts on her page.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has woken many more people up, and led them to leave Facebook, but there still needs to be a much wider appreciation of the merits of keeping our private lives to ourselves.

It is up to all of us to do just that. We put the phone down on obvious scammers trying to elicit bank details, and should be equally aware of the dangers of revealing so much of ourselves online.

But in the face of the sheer reach and influence that Facebook has – and the potential for that to be exploited – personal responsibility needs to be bolstered by statutory measures. The free ride that it has enjoyed has to be brought to an end.

Regulation of what it does, and how it uses the data, is long overdue. In Orwell’s story, Winston Smith was ultimately unable to fight back against Big Brother. We’re different. We can, and should.