This is Your Brain on Facebook

Privacy, Social Media, Technology

By: Ross Sempek

Well…it finally happened. My Luddite sensibilities have been validated. Everyone derided me for my tinfoil hat, but it turns out they were trying to tap into my brain waves this whole time. That’s right, Facebook wants our thoughts; our flyaway fibers of information to be snatched from the ether and weaved into their tapestry of data. Our ancient oases of private conceit is under threat by a company whose ethical violations comprise a laundry-list of reasons in conflict with such an undertaking. But here we are. It’s crazy to me, absolutely bonkers that personal privacy has become such a non-issue.

So with a knowing nod to Regina Dugan’s speech at the 2017 F8 developer conference, Mark Zuckerberg noted this development, among others, in a recent interview at Harvard that outlined his strategic vision. One motivation for accessing your thoughts is to reinvent their platform into a seamless UX: Just think it, and it’s posted. BAM. No more typing (ugh, typing), no more scrolling (ugh, swiping), and no more privacy (ugh, privacy – so selfish). Now, I’m no neurosurgeon, and I don’t know exactly how this thinking cap will work, but if this is destined to be our new normal, here’s some privacy-related food for thought.

Electroencephalograms (EEGs) can detect the “overall electrical activity” occurring in your brain. So even though Dugan reassured us that “this isn’t about decoding random thoughts,” it’s plausible that Facebook could determine if you have brain trauma, or if you’re high on drugs.

Your random thoughts are safe – some consolation. Dugan continued: “This is about decoding the words you’ve already decided to share by sending them to the speech center of your brain.” Don’t worry dudes, it’s fine. You’ve already decided to share your thoughts. You put it out there. This simplistic downplay of a Facebook mind-meld sounds like a subtle admonishment, a friendly reminder, or a bullet point in their T&C.

Speaking of which, don’t TLDR this product’s data-sharing policies, or its terms of use. They’re usually not that long in the first place, and it’s worth the effort when one is needed. Especially when you let a company and it’s third-party partners read your thoughts. The language in Facebook’s data policies is subject to change and they will notify you when edits are made. Don’t ignore these communiqués; actively engage with all aspects of social media.

I’m also not convinced that a wearable tech that scans your brain activity can perform such a task in a piecemeal fashion. This facility can’t ignore the holism of your gray matter, nor concurrent visual and aural stimuli that inform your speech. So while random thoughts may not be decoded, your brain activity will be, and you can count on Facebook monetizing these observations.

And for the intrepid reader, Regina Dugan’s 2011 statement on emerging threats and capabilities is worth a perusal for insights into her motivations for precipitating bleeding-edge technology. Near the end of her piece, she even notes thought-enabled prosthetics, as seen here demonstrated by the afore-linked-to Elise Hu (5:05 – creepy, huh?). This story of military innovation shipping to the consumer market is deliberate, as Dugan states:

“Our goal, simply put, is to create breakthroughs in manufacturing that enable massive innovation, much like the breakthrough of the Internet enabled massive innovations in the communication and IT industries.”

Dugan’s linear rise from DARPA to Google to Facebook is no coincidence and users should at least be aware of this unfortunate caveat. All of these organizations thrive off of compiling information, and would wither under protections for privacy. So if you’ve already put tape over your monitor’s face-cam, then you might take issue with a DoD-born tech scanning your brain activity.

With the intent to quell reasonable fears, I hear rationalizing analogs between future cyborg-humans and current medical prosthetics like pacemakers, insulin injectors, and hearing-aids. However these widgets all augment conditions we collectively consider a disadvantage. And now Zuckerberg considers the power of speech a disadvantage. Typing at 100 words per minute with your brain is better, somehow, than manual dexterity. It certainly is quicker for you. But, better? That relative pleasure belongs to Facebook and its inventory of lucrative data. Ironically this contrived detriment is ultimately overcome for the purposes of a manufactured world: Augmented Reality. Ernest Cline’s Oasis made real…in a fake sorta way.

But we’re not quite there yet (thank goodness), and I should really wrap-up my thoughts. Can EEGs penetrate tinfoil?

Ross Sempek

Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.

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