My Memories Are Just Meta’s Training Data Now

In R. C. Sherriff’s novel The Hopkins Manuscript, readers are transported to a world 800 years after a cataclysmic event ended Western civilization. In pursuit of clues about a blank spot in their planet’s history, scientists belonging to a new world order discover diary entries in a swamp-infested wasteland formerly known as England. For the inhabitants of this new empire, it is only through this record of a retired school teacher’s humdrum rural life, his petty vanities and attempts to breed prize-winning chickens, that they begin to learn about 20th-century Britain.

If I were to teach futuristic beings about life on earth, I once believed I could produce a time capsule more profound than Sherriff’s small-minded protagonist, Edgar Hopkins. But scrolling through my decade-old Facebook posts this week, I was presented with the possibility that my legacy may be even more drab.

Earlier this month, Meta announced that my teenage status updates were exactly the kind of content it wants to pass on to future generations of artificial intelligence. From June 26, old public posts, holiday photos, and even the names of millions of Facebook and Instagram users around the world would effectively be treated as a time capsule of humanity and transformed into training data.

That means my mundane posts about university essay deadlines (“3 energy drinks down 1,000 words to go”) as well as unremarkable holiday snaps (one captures me slumped over my phone on a stationary ferry) are about to become part of that corpus. The fact that these memories are so dull, and also very personal, makes Meta’s interest more unsettling.

The company says it is only interested in content that is already public: private messages, posts shared exclusively with friends, and Instagram Stories are out of bounds. Despite that, AI is suddenly feasting on personal artifacts that have, for years, been gathering dust in unvisited corners of the internet. For those reading from outside Europe, the deed is already done. The deadline announced by Meta applied only to Europeans. The posts of American Facebook and Instagram users have been training Meta AI models since 2023, according to company spokesperson Matthew Pollard.

Meta is not the only company turning my online history into AI fodder. WIRED’s Reece Rogers recently discovered that Google’s AI search feature was copying his journalism. But finding out which personal remnants exactly are feeding future chatbots was not easy. Some sites I’ve contributed to over the years are hard to trace. Early social network Myspace was acquired by Time Inc. in 2016, which in turn was acquired by a company called Meredith Corporation two years later. When I asked Meredith about my old account, they replied that Myspace had since been spun off to an advertising firm, Viant Technology. An email to a company contact listed on its website was returned with a message that the address “couldn’t be found.”

Aside from LinkedIn, companies seemed less likely to let algorithms feast on messages or documents I created for work. Office messaging service Slack denied previous reports it used customer messages to train AI. Microsoft, too, said content created in its suite of workplace products—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook (formerly Hotmail), and Teams—was not being used to train underlying foundation models. Google also said its work tools, like the paid and unpaid versions of Gmail, were out of bounds, although models may be trained on YouTube videos.

Meta is clearly not alone. But its repackaging of Facebook and Instagram content is notable due to how many people used the platforms to document very personal milestones. Because I live in Europe, my Facebook and Instagram posts are out of reach of Meta’s AI—for now. The company’s announcement of its AI training plans sparked a fresh row between Meta and European privacy regulators, prompting Meta to temporarily pause its plans to use the posts of Europeans, including Brits, to train its models.

As Meta lamented that its AI needed European data to understand regional languages and cultures, privacy campaigners at the Austrian group NOYB celebrated the pause as a tentative win. A perennial thorn in Meta’s side, NOYB had already filed complaints in 11 countries because, it argues, Meta did not give Europeans a clear way to opt out of being turned into training data. (Meta denies this, saying users could fill in a form.) “We’re not against them introducing AI,” NOYB spokesperson Mickey Manakas told WIRED. “They just have to introduce it in a legally compliant way.”

It’s unclear how long Meta will pause its plans. And the wider trend in how tech companies handle personal data is clear. Our digital traces and memories are being turned into training data. If you think there is still time to prepare your time capsule, you are wrong. Your history is already being digested by the entities that will rule our future.

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Time Travel

Nine years after he was sentenced to life in prison, Ross Ulbricht, creator of the dark-web marketplace Silk Road, remains a cause célèbre for America’s libertarian movement. Even the tiny chunk of support the Libertarian Party solicited in 2020’s presidential election—1.2 percent—was enough to catch the interest of Donald Trump, who has been courting its voters. “If you vote for me, on Day 1, I will commute the sentence of Ross Ulbricht to a sentence of time served,” Trump pledged to a cheering audience at the Libertarian National Convention last month.

The prospect of Ulbricht walking free prompted me to delve into the WIRED archives to revisit Joshuah Bearman’s definitive story of Silk Road’s rise and fall. Here’s an extract that captures Ulbricht and his site’s libertarian roots.

To that end Ross [Ulbricht] had a flash of insight. “The idea,” he wrote in his journal, “was to create a website where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatsoever that could lead back to them.” He wrote that he’d “been studying the technology for a while but needed a business model and strategy.”

Like most libertarians, Ross believed that drug use was a personal choice. And like all people paying attention, he observed that the war on drugs was a complete failure. The natural merchandise for his new enterprise would be drugs. “I was calling it Underground Brokers,” Ross wrote, “but eventually settled on Silk Road.”

[…] In a way, Silk Road was the logical extension of the libertarian view that animates much of the Internet (not to mention the rising political tide in Washington). It was Silicon Valley in extremis, a disruptive technology wrapped in political rhetoric. DPR [Dread Pirate Roberts—Ulbricht’s nom de guerre on the site] was its philosopher-king, envisioning a post-state digital economy, with Silk Road as the first step toward a libertarian paradise. Not only was Silk Road a slap in the face to law enforcement, it was a direct challenge, as DPR wrote, to the very structure of power.

All the more reason, of course, why the government wanted to shut it down. Ross had been flattered by the sudden media attention in June 2011, but when US senator Charles Schumer called a press conference to denounce Silk Road, he was alarmed. “The US govt, my main enemy,” he wrote, “was aware of me and … calling for my destruction.”

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Ask Me One Thing

Karl Emil asks, “How can a single politician even consider voting for mass surveillance?”

Thanks for the question, Karl Emil. You are alluding to a European Union bill that proposes scanning private messages to check for evidence of child sexual abuse. That potentially means analyzing WhatsApp photos, iMessage texts, and Snapchat videos. In Europe, the debate about this bill has been extremely heated among a small group of people—especially over whether this regime should apply to messengers like WhatsApp or Signal that are end-to-end encrypted. I suspect Karl Emil’s question is rhetorical because he calls the bill “chat control 2.0,” the name used by privacy activists who say the bill basically amounts to mass surveillance. He’s also an IT security specialist who has been critical of the proposal in Swedish media.

Still, I’m going to take this question at face value: How can a single politician consider voting for this? Last year, I interviewed Ylva Johansson, the Swedish home affairs commissioner who has championed the bill, to find out exactly that. Johansson is proud of her bill, even claiming it as “my proposal.” She sees herself as a crusader taking on big companies who want to escape regulation. “I think I have a moral obligation to act,” she told me. “If I don’t, who am I? I will be a little mouse. I will be nothing.” She reasons that people don’t often complain about spam filters that scan emails to decide whether they’re junk, so why would they complain if the same concept was applied to child abuse content? Privacy campaigners and operators of encrypted messengers argue this is not how technology works. Scanning would effectively open a backdoor into once private communications, they say. “Let’s be clear,” says Andy Yen, CEO of Proton. “Any form of mass scanning undermines encryption.”

On Thursday, those divisions were also evident among EU governments, who clashed in the lead-up to a scheduled vote on the proposal. With reports suggesting that Austria, Czechia, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland were set to either oppose or abstain,the vote was postponed.

You can submit questions to Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

My Memories Are Just Meta's Training Data Now

End Times Chronicle

Three tourists died this week in Greece, as the country experiences back-to-back heat waves, which pushed the temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Last but Not Least

Instead of mining the seabed for new minerals, a new report asks, why don’t we just recycle the ones we’ve already got?

If you’re ever bored in the middle of the night in Denver’s airport, try logging onto Strava.

When a replica of the roads surrounding Taipei’s presidential district appeared in the middle of arid Inner Mongolia, a region in north China, people started to wonder, what would actually happen if China invaded Taiwan?

Airbnb is hoping the Olympics effect will boost its presence in Paris and win over still skeptical locals.

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Source : Wired