NYT Shows Zuckerberg What Privacy Invasion Feels Like with Report on What's in His Trash


What does it feel like to have some of your most private details shared with the world?

If you’re like many users of the popular social networking site Facebook, you might already know the feeling. After all, the tech giant has recently faced a series of scandals involving privacy. Perhaps the most famous was the fallout from Cambridge Analytica, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Facebook rushed to do damage control after it was revealed that a data mining company had pulled details from millions of user profiles without their express consent, using them for political targeting.

As a result of that kerfuffle, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared in front of Congress to testify about the massive company’s handling of user data. His message was, basically, “trust us” — but other more recent scandals have put that trust on thin ice.

In a strange twist, however, Zuckerberg’s personal life has just been exposed in what some are seeing as a justified turning of the tables. No, his computer didn’t get hacked. His garbage did.

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On Sunday, The New York Times ran an interesting story about Jake Orta. According to the newspaper, Orta is a military veteran who was previously homeless, although he now has a place to live.

That housing just happens to be very near Zuckerberg’s ten-million-dollar house in San Francisco.

Why does that matter? Because Orta’s pastime is trash picking, and the Facebook bigwig was his latest target.

“Mr. Orta is a full-time trash picker, part of an underground economy in San Francisco of people who work the sidewalks in front of multimillion-dollar homes, rummaging for things they can sell,” the Times explained.

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Picking trash is both a way to make money and to glimpse into the private lives of everyday people — or, in this case, one of the richest and most famous tech billionaires in the world.

“There’s a child’s pink bicycle helmet that Mr. Orta dug out from the garbage bin across the street from Mr. Zuckerberg’s house,” the Times continued.

“And a vacuum cleaner, a hair dryer, a coffee machine — all in working condition — and a pile of clothes that he carried home in a Whole Foods paper bag retrieved from Mr. Zuckerberg’s bin.”

The veteran implied that it was Zuck who threw those items out, although it’s of course impossible to know for sure.

Orta told the newspaper that he aims to make at least $30 a day by scavenging items out of the trash, which are then re-sold.

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We certainly aren’t saying this is a good plan: In California, the practice is technically illegal, though apparently it is enforced only rarely. But it’s hard to deny that it’s interesting.

“It just amazes me what people throw away,” he said during a night of rummaging. “You never know what you will find.”

In a way, it’s the real-world version of what big tech companies like Facebook have done with people’s information. Collect as much as possible, often without them knowing exactly what is being gathered, and then sell it to whoever is interested.

Will privacy actually improve on social media platforms, or is “dumpster diving” through people’s personal info just too lucrative for tech companies to stop? Only time will tell, but hopefully people like Zuckerberg will start taking protections more seriously.

And putting a lock on his trash bin also wouldn’t be a bad idea.

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Benjamin Arie is an independent journalist and writer. He has personally covered everything ranging from local crime to the U.S. president as a reporter in Michigan before focusing on national politics. Ben frequently travels to Latin America and has spent years living in Mexico.