In November, Ahmed Zaki, an Egyptian journalist based in London, wrote a post on his Facebook account that went viral telling of how a private conversation with a friend resulted in him receiving online ads pertaining to his conversation.
According to Zaki, he and his friend were speaking of a rare disease that his friend had, after which he found ads promoting medicines to treat this specific disease on his Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram accounts.
Zaki believes his conversation was recorded using his phone's microphones.
In January 2016, Zaki posted about a tablet he bought from online shopping company Amazon.
“When I first used the tablet, I found a message greeting me with my full name, and on the main menu I found all my favourite books, music and movies, which I never even wrote about online,” Zaki said.
“In the old days, intelligence agencies collected information about people from their garbage. Now they do not need to do this, they can get everything through talking to Amazon or Facebook.”
Zaki told Ahram Online via Facebook chat, “I am aware that I am being spied on, and this has happened with other people as well.”
However, Zaki is still not overly bothered or worried, as he believes he still has control over how much internet services affect him, though he knows these services are subconsciously manipulating the ideas and desires of their users, including himself.
“I still believe that their purpose [in data gathering] is only commercial,” Zaki says, adding that, out of laziness, he never reads the terms of service of social media sites, though he believes that these terms most likely outline how user data will be used.
Internet companies have faced widespread controversy in recent years regarding how they analyse the personal data of users with the aim of targeting them for advertising.
Several campaigns have been launched worldwide against internet companies gathering user data.
An inevitable evil?
In the end, Zaki benefits from using these communication tools, and he tries to push away the idea of being watched so as not to get paranoid, as he believes that any low-grade intelligence body could effortlessly hack anyone's account.
In Egypt, as numbers of internet users continue to grow and millions use sites like Facebook and Google, more and more people face having their personal data exposed.
According to the Information and Communications Technology Indicators report issued in June 2016 by the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT), the number of internet users in Egypt reached 29.8 million, or a 37.8 percent penetration rate according to ICT access and use by households and individuals in 2015.
Ahram Online searched via Facebook for people facing situations similar to Zaki, talking to some of them through Facebook chat.
Kamal Samir, a director of photography, told Ahram Online, “I already have a privacy issue, and I have a big problem with the feeling that I'm being watched... and this had led me to not post any photos of myself on social networks until 2010.”
For Samir, social media is a double-edged sword, with both advantages and disadvantages.
“[I have a] a subtle feeling of insecurity as to whether these analyses of my personality could be used against me. And you cannot really escape this, because you will not exist [without social media], as entire circles of work, friends and social life are virtual,” Samir said.
Nashwa Maatouk, a fashion designer who also faced similar issues, told Ahram Online that this is understandable because Facebook takes permission in its terms of service to access our phone's microphone, location, photo gallery and WhatsApp messages.
“Internet companies know us better than we know ourselves now. They know our taste in everything. But I cannot stop using these apps, which I use for work as well, and if the target [of data gathering] is only advertising, I'm fine with that,” Maatouk concluded.
Nessma Nassr, a textile engineer, told Ahram Online, “I have this feeling that Facebook is tracking me and my phone.”
“A friend request was sent to me by someone from my college even though I have no common friends with this person, who is very pro-regime. I have anti-regime ideas that I post on Facebook, and this could cause me trouble if I accept the friend request, and embarrassment if I ignore it,” Nassr said.
“If I call someone who previously did not have my number, all my information will be visible to them [if they have the] Truecaller app; my photo, my full name, my email, and my location.”
Ahmed Ellabad, a painter and graphic designer, recalls a situation where he “asked a friend to buy me a pair of shoes from abroad, sending them information about the type and model of the shoes.”
“Months later… when I asked my friend to buy me the same shoes, this time without providing details, I was surprised to find that I keep getting ads about the specific shoes I had wanted.”
Ellabad knows he gave up some of his privacy in return for the service, and although he says he has nothing to hide, he feels the danger because “there is some party that could anticipate my behaviour, analyse my trends, plans, and know my future decisions, and could use all this to direct me and other people in certain ways, and with this, the free will of the individual decreases.”
Ellabad says that internet companies should use publicly-shared data for directed advertising, and that users should have the right to prevent anyone from using their private data.
Karim Farrag, a computer systems engineer, told Ahram Online that most internet users utilise one of three internet browsers; Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Google Chrome. He says that these browsers track your online habits by using “cookies.”
“The problem is that even if you use the alternatives, almost all of our mobile systems are controlled by Google, which has your email, YouTube account, and is connected to the mobile applications we use. The tracking happens once you log onto any application,” Farrag said.
Amr Gharbeia, a technology and human rights officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), tells Ahram Online that internet companies are monopolists that seek to buy any possible competitor, and if they cannot, they attempt to push them out of the market through various means, including exploiting the legal system.
“Mobile devices are becoming spy tools. [Internet companies] have access to your device, including your password, your purchases and expenditures, and your browsing habits, so they can build profiles for people to improve their advertising system.”
“Starting last year, Facebook messenger had the ability to open your device's microphone offline and record the television ads you are watching,” Gharbeia said.
Worldwide campaigning against Google and Facebook
According to the 2015 world development indicator by the World Bank, about 43 percent of the world population has internet access, and 208,712 in every one million people use secure internet servers, which help provide protection from internet hackers.
Several campaigns have been launched worldwide against data gathering by internet companies, including the Google Transparency Project, an American research initiative that is part of the Campaign for Accountability.
The project website says that “over the past decade, Google has transformed itself from the dominant internet search engine into a global business empire that touches on almost every facet of people’s lives, often without their knowledge or consent.”
The campaign accuses the company of gathering information from unprotected Wi-Fi networks, scanning the content of people’s emails and tracking their activities online and their movements in the real world.
The campaign asks how a company that calls for transparency has done little to make its dealings with government more visible to the public, from its relationships with American government officials to its lobbying operations.
A European campaign called Europe versus Facebook considers Facebook a monopoly, as users have no alternative to using the site if they want to stay connected to their social groups. The campaign asserts that there is no free market for social networks.
The campaign says that it is impossible for people to really know how their personal data is being used when they go on Facebook.
“Users have to deal with vague and contradictory privacy policies and cannot fully estimate the consequences of using Facebook,” the campaign says, accusing the company of lacking transparency.
The campaign calls for the company to abide by European data protection laws, as the right to data protection is a fundamental right in the European Union.
“Facebook is just one of many that have a bad reputation when it comes to the handling of users’ data,” the campaign says.
The campaign has filed 22 complaints against Facebook in Ireland for breaching basic privacy rules.
In August 2016, British newspaper The Guardian reported that mobile messaging service WhatsApp would be giving its parent company Facebook the personal information of its users.
In response, the German Data Protection Agency has ordered Facebook to stop collecting data from its Whatsapp users, and to delete any data it has already collected, as the company had not obtained approval from WhatsApp users and there is an absence of a legal basis for the data gathering.
In June 2016, The Guardian reported that Facebook successfully appealed a 2015 ruling by a Belgian court that blocked the social network from using cookies to track the internet activity of logged-out users in the country.
The court had ordered an end to the tracking and registering of internet data of users in Belgium, though Facebook won an appeal against the ruling on the grounds that the European base of operations is in Ireland, not Belgium.
In 2015, research by the Belgian Data Protection Agency revealed that Facebook tracks the web browsing habits of anyone who visits the site, even if the user does not have a Facebook account or had explicitly opted out of tracking in the EU.
“The headquarters of these [internet] companies are located in the United States and are protected by influential lobbies, very powerful and clever legal teams, as well as the absence of legal data protection acts,” Gharbeia says.
“When the users sign their contracts, they do it with the parent companies, not the branches located in their countries, so the branches do not keep the data, and they are not subject to local regulations.”
According to Facebook’s data policy, the site collects “information from or about the computers, phones, or other devices where you install or access our Services, depending on the permissions you’ve granted. We may associate the information we collect from your different devices, which helps us provide consistent services across your devices.”
If a user utilises Facebook services for purchases or financial transactions, the site collects payment information, bank card numbers and other card information, as well as billing, shipping and contact details.
The site also collects information from or about the computers, phones, or other devices where the user has installed or accessed their services, and it receives information about users and their activities “on and off Facebook from third-party partners,” as well as information about users from companies that are owned or operated by Facebook.
Facebook says the information it collects is used to personalise content for users, conduct surveys and research, test features in development, evaluate and improve products and services, and facilitate marketing and improve advertising and measurement systems.
“We share information we have about you within the family of companies that are part of Facebook, we work with third party companies who help us provide and improve our Services or who use advertising or related products, which makes it possible to operate our companies and provide free services to people around the world,” Facebook says.
The site adds that it only shares with third parties advertising, measurement and analytics services that include “non-personally identifiable information.”
“We want our advertising to be as relevant and interesting as the other information you find on our services. With this in mind, we use all of the information we have about you to show you relevant ads,” says Facebook.
“What enables Google, Yahoo, Facebook and other companies to provide a free service to their users is their business model, which involves tracking the data of users and selling it to advertising companies,” says Gharbeia.
According to Gharbeia, in the 1990s and early 2000s, users paid for email, which was mostly provided by small university groups, with limitations on data capacity that required payment to increase.
Today, email services are provided by giant companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon.
“In 2004, Google announced it would give users a large data capacity for free in return for tracking and storing data,” says Gharbeia.
“The real business of companies such as Facebook or Google is selling this data, this is why Google is the biggest advertising company. So the user himself is the product to be sold in return for the service.”
Gharbeia adds that these companies phrase their terms of agreement in a complicated and tedious way so as to discourage users from reading them.
However, a Facebook spokesperson told Ahram Online that “protecting the privacy of Facebook users is of utmost importance to us.”
“We have clear guidelines that prevent information from Facebook being accessed [by a third party]. Everyone who uses Facebook has control of the information they share, this includes the information people include within their profile, and who can see this information. Our Privacy Basicstool explains how people can quickly and easily decide what information they share.”
“We do not monitor user activity on the site, but we do have a set of Community Standards that are designed to help people understand what is acceptable to share on Facebook. These standards prohibit hate speech, which includes content that directly attacks people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender or gender identity and serious disabilities or diseases. We take any violations of our standards seriously, and that is why we remove content, profiles and pages when we are made aware of it.”
However, the spokesperson did not respond to Ahram Online's question about the site’s use of personal information for advertising.
What are the options for Egyptian users?
According to Ellabad, campaigns against tracking by internet companies are not as big in Egypt as it is in Europe.
According to the world development indicator by the World Bank, 5,442 in one million internet users in Egypt use secure internet servers.
Computer engineer Karim Farrag suggests preventing tracking by using anti-tracking programmes such as CCleaner to erase cookies stored on your computer or device, or activating the “do not track” option on your internet browser.
One can also use alternative browsers that do not track user data, such as DuckDuckGo, Comodo Dragon/Ice Dragon, Tor, Dooble, Maxthon Cloud Browser, HTTPS Everywhere, Cocoon browsing, IceBrowser, and Avira Scout.
According to Gharbeia, users have limited options when it comes to browsers, which vary in quality and popularity.
Gharbeia also says that the popular internet browsers connect to the widely-used Android mobile system, and although there are alternatives to these companies, they are less developed and not available to most people. If users opt out of using social media sites, they will miss out on social connectivity.
“However, the good thing is that internet companies have reached their peak, so their influence will naturally start to decrease as alternatives come to the forefront,” Gharbeia says, adding that “more and more people around the world are starting to see the problems with these companies.”