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Brislen on Tech: The people or the pixel

Paul Brislen, Editor. 07 May 2021, 12:33 pm

When news that the government was to restructure the health sector I wanted to tune in live to find out more.

It's important for my job but also for my own sense of well being and I enjoy getting the news straight from the horse's mouth.

The government announcement was streamed live on Facebook.

I have some fairly fundamental concerns about Facebook, the way it operates, the damage it causes and its unwillingness to address the problems I see in its operating model. They are fairly well canvassed on this site so I won't go into them in much detail here except to say they're all still outstanding.

So I am unwilling to log on to my fake Facebook account (kept to manage client pages) to watch a government broadcast and instead caught most of it live on Radio New Zealand.

The government's relationship with Facebook is fraught. I get that they want to reach the largest number of readers/viewers/listeners whenever they talk to people but the medium is responsible for the destruction of so much (tax collection, our sense of wellbeing, our ability not to be massacred in Christchurch mosques) that I find it abhorrent the government also pays Facebook to carry its content.

Now however it turns out that a number of government websites - including the New Zealand Police site - are using Facebook pixels to better enable Facebook to track users as they move around the web.

Tracking Pixel

The discovery was made by PhD law student Kent Newman, who has asked for comment from a number of government agencies (including the Privacy Commissioner and the Public Service Commission) and to find out why this practice is allowed.

As he points out to Thomas Beagle, chair of the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties (and thanks to Thomas for making this information public) these pixels are in place on many government websites and are used without disclosing their presence to the users.

"What I have found is that many government websites are not disclosing their use of these tracking tools, making them non-compliant straight out of the gate. Worse than this, many government websites include statements which are objectively false."

That is itself a breach of Facebook's own policies which call for "clear and prominent" notices on sites that use pixels to collect data.

Pixels aren't new, but I think many people would be horrified by just how wide-spread their use is. They track Facebook users but also track non-Facebook users who visit a page and report back to Facebook on what you do and where you go. This is valuable information for the social media giant which then uses it to send targeted advertising your way.

Of course, that's not the only information the company gleans about you as you visit sites. As Beagle puts it in his blog post, "It's telling Facebook when you visit the NZ Police "What can I do if I have been sexually assaulted?" webpage, or check the NZTA webpage on how to cancel the driver's license of a deceased relative". I don't know about you but I don't particularly want Facebook knowing this kind of information given how clumsy its use of it will be.

Increasingly Facebook is coming under fire for its lazy approach to user privacy, its rapacious appetite for our data and its unacceptable approach to making money at its users' expense. It's one thing to get advertising for that mother's day gift you were browsing for but finding out that government websites are happy to share your details with Facebook in this way is something else entirely. The government cannot claim to be holding Facebook to account on one hand but continue to shove money and your data in its pockets with another.

You have to pick a side, government. The people or the pixel.


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David Lane 07 May 2021, 12:56 pm

Nice to see you're raising this issue. Our Gov't - in order to have a leg to stand on in the fight to get these above-the-law US tech corporates to pay their real tax obligations - needs to ditch Facebook altogether. Luckily, there are excellent services we could use for all the purposes the Gov't currently uses FB, but hosted onshore here in NZ, by NZ companies, using open source software (like OwnCast for live streaming and Mobilizon for event management) at a miniscule cost to the taxpayer. The Gov't should be obliged to use *open and local (supplier & data storage)* first, and then they're welcome "closed and foreign" (e.g. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, etc.) second, if at all. Preferably not at all.

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