ST Scroll Back: Give away child, data... Things in fine print people clicked ‘agree’ to

People inadvertently agree to absurd terms and conditions - even signing away the rights to their child - in their rush to take advantage of technology, a security researcher said of a London experiment.
People inadvertently agree to absurd terms and conditions - even signing away the rights to their child - in their rush to take advantage of technology, a security researcher said of a London experiment.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

We’re taking a closer look at ‘terms and conditions’ which nobody reads but everybody agrees to. With the Facebook data scandal, perhaps you should too.

Free app. “By using our services, you are agreeing to these terms. Please read them carefully…” Click. Agree. 

Free Wi-Fi. “By using our…” Click. Agree. 

T&Cs (terms and conditions)? TL;DR. 

Yet there are deep implications to what we have so casually agreed to. 

Facebook is under pressure to explain how 50 million users’ data ended up in the hands of a political consultancy.

Lawmakers in the United States and Europe are demanding to know more about the company’s privacy practices after a whistleblower said consultancy Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed data to target voters in the 2016 US election and 2016 Brexit referendum.

Have you thought about what Facebook’s fine print says about your privacy?

Read on to find out what else - apart from giving away buckets of data - we click-click-click-agreed to.

Take my username, my password… Take my firstborn

In an experiment, security researchers set up a Wi-Fi hotspot in some of London’s busiest districts. 

When people connected to the hotspot, the terms and conditions they were asked to sign up to included a clause promising free Wi-Fi but only if “the recipient agreed to assign their firstborn child to us for the duration of eternity”. 

Some people failed to read the clause. They agreed to the terms.

This was described by Mr Mikko Hypponen, a security researcher at F-Secure, the Finnish security firm that sponsored the experiment, to BBC Radio 4 Today. Listen to the podcast here.

Among the data harvested was an e-mail username and password in plain text. "That's the key to the kingdom," said F-Secure security adviser Sean Sullivan in a report by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

“We have yet to enforce our rights under the terms and conditions but, as this is an experiment, we will be returning the children to their parents.” - F-Secure said this cheekily in its report on the firstborn children clause people agreed to.

Take away my right to build nuclear weapons with iTunes

A protester in Sydney. Apple got iTunes users to agree to not make nuclear weapons using the app. PHOTO: AFP 

When you agreed to the terms of using the Apple iTunes store, you said yes to not using its services for the “development, design, manufacture, or production of nuclear, missile, or chemical or biological weapons”.

Was Apple thinking of nuclear weapons that play Justin Bieber music as they explode, asked CNET website?

Sounds like you signed up for world peace. Sorry, dictator wannabes.

But if it were a company hell-bent on world domination (well, it is) for evil purposes (most probably not), you could have just as easily blindly click-agreed to something like, “You agree to blast children’s music from the speakers all day and all night to torture neighbours and hamsters.” 

With the first sentence of the T&Cs saying, “These terms and conditions create a contract between you and (company)”, you would have been bound by them. 

Poor hamsters.

The long and short of it is that it’s too long

Who reads T&Cs when they’re long, dry as dust and sometimes SHOUT AT YOU IN ALL CAPS LIKE A GRANDPA WHO CAN’T HEAR HIMSELF SPEAK. 

A Guardian writer, Mr Alex Hern, tried to read the T&Cs before doing anything for a week and he said: “It made me want to die”.

Number of T&Cs words (enough to fill three quarters of the book, Moby Dick) Mr Hern read in those seven days.

Number of terms-of-service documents he read.

15 minutes
Amount of time each document took him to skim through.

>8 hours
Amount of time he spent reading T&Cs that week.

Game to try it for yourself? Something easier. No need for 140,000 words. 

How about these: Facebook's service agreement has over 3,700 words and Twitter's has 11,000 words. In comparison, Shakespeare’s play Macbeth has about 18,000 words.

Maybe not.

The British government wants to direct tech giants to simplify their data management policies. It has summoned executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter to a meeting in April to discuss data management practices. 

Mr Matt Hancock, the British digital, culture and media secretary, told Britain’s The Sunday Times that the digital powerhouses were failing to provide users with clear and concise terms and conditions for how personal data is used. His goal is to get the information onto one page.

“People are bewildered by pages of unwieldy terms and conditions. I want these boiled right down so people can see in one glance what they're signing up to.” - Mr Matt Hancock, the British digital, culture and media secretary.

T&Cs in one page? How about one sentence?

This isn’t the first time that people have to tried to simplify dense and unwieldy terms of use.

A study released in 2017 by the Children’s Commissioner in Britain reports that not only do people under the age of 18 spend up to 20 hours a week online, but that they also don’t understand the majority of the terms of use for the apps they were using. Concerned by this, the organisation asked a law firm to help solve the problem.


London privacy lawyer Jenny Afia rewrote Instagram's T&Cs in "plain English" so that users, specifically teens, could understand them.  

She even managed to condense Instagram’s T&Cs into one simple sentence that teenagers could understand: “Don’t use anybody else’s account without their permission or try to find out their login details.”

“Young people are unwittingly giving away personal information with no real understanding of who is holding that information, where they are holding it and what they are going to do with it.” - Lawyer Jenny Afia told The Washington Post.

T is for take, C is for credit

Individual consumers aren’t the only ones not reading T&C though.

Even banks aren’t reading them.

When Mr Dmitry Argarkov was sent a letter by Russian bank Tinkoff offering him a credit card, he rewrote the terms to his favour. 

The bank signed the contract while apparently failing to read the absurd amendments, and sent him a credit card.

Mr Argarkov's version of the contract included terms such as a zero per cent interest rate, no fees and no credit limit. Every time the bank failed to comply with the rules, he would fine them tens of thousands of dollars.

The bank and Mr Argarkov eventually sued each other, but both dropped the legal actions in the end.

T&Cs are usually long, dry and hard to understand. NP FILE PHOTO ILLUSTRATION