I think nowadays most informed people realize that privacy on the Internet is an illusion. There is no real secrecy in cyberspace, and if you live in the States — unless you are born of a jackal, raised by wolves, and currently residing in a hut somewhere in the woods of Arkansas and have never so much as seen a light bulb or a sharp stick — then records of your existence are somewhere online. Your information may not be easily accessible to the public, but with enough money, diligence, and tech savvy, someone out there can find you. You can only hope that you either aren’t worth the trouble, or that no one with the means and determination to find you intends you any harm. And to some extent, that was true even before we were all linked together on this vast series of tubes. But there’s no disputing that it’s a whole lot easier to find people than it once was.
I am certainly no exception, and I know there is a plethora of information freely available about me online. I have Googled and people-searched myself, and information certainly exists, easily accessible even to my unskilled fingers. How accurate or current some of that information may be when I find it is a little more iffy, but stuff is out there.
Hmm, I’ve been kinda sorta on-again/off-again gone from the Moose for a while, and I’ve missed you guys, so let’s get friendly — how about a personal story?
“I think I’ll take ‘Sricki’s Mild Childhood Upsets’ for 800, Alex.”
When I was 10 in fifth grade, I wrote a nasty note to a friend of mine who I’d been arguing with and slipped it into her locker. She, in turn, showed it to all the rest of our friends, making my rudeness widely known — I was lucky, in fact, that she still wanted to be my friend enough to refrain from handing my note over to the teachers. But when my words got out, I came home upset to my mother and confessed what I’d done and what had happened as a result. She was not sympathetic — just instructive. She said (paraphrased), Never put anything into writing you wouldn’t want everyone you have ever known or ever will know to see. That was before most privacy issues concerning the Internet had become widely publicized. I have not always heeded her words, and in fact, I am probably ignoring them to an extent this very minute. I have shared plenty of private information online, though I usually go by a nickname like “sricki” to avoid making my identity outwardly obvious. I think Blasky has pointed out on numerous occasions that such protections are not, in fact, protections at all — and to a large degree, I can concede that he is right. If I infuriate someone (who is both vindictive and has some know-how) badly enough and have been doing things I oughtn’t online, I can be busted with ease. When we post private information online, as I so often have in diaries such as this one, we are taking a huge gamble — we are betting that either nothing we say can be used against us, or we are hoping that the engels of the world are technologically illiterate.
I can admit that I’ve at times been careless with my information online — I have been using the Internet since I was a pre-teen — well over a decade now, and I have disregarded my mother’s advice repeatedly. I have said all sorts of things online of which I’d prefer that future employers and friends never become aware. I have done so, however, with the understanding that it’s a possibility that one day my information could become available to such people. But the scary thing for the rest of the country/world is that I’m more careful about my private information than most (largely because I dislike most networking sites to begin with). On Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc., while you may find my name, very little else is available to the public or even to my “friends.”
But what about people who are more open with their information?
There is nothing wrong with wanting to share yourself with your friends and relatives. Social networking sites can be wonderful tools for keeping in touch with people, and even for reconnecting with those we haven’t talked to in years. No one should really have expectations of privacy online, but the fact is that they do. And even those of us who are very careful with what we tell sites like Facebook are still entitled to surprisingly little privacy or consideration. As with most things, people should assume a “buyer beware” attitude of sorts when signing up for services like MySpace and Facebook. I think, however, that most people assume too much — they assume that their information will not be given out unless they specifically authorize each detail to be distributed. The privacy settings on these sites are not always easy to navigate, and I trust sites like MySpace and LiveJournal even less than I trust blogs. But when it comes to invasion of privacy, Facebook is way ahead of the curve.
I signed up on Facebook a couple of years ago so that I could view a friend’s page, and immediately got friend requests from several people I’d not notified of my registration. I got a list of “users you may know” based on who I’d been emailing through Yahoo. Granted, everyone listed seemed “safe” (including several moose, in fact), but I was galled and horrified nonetheless — if I’d wanted to find those people, could I not have searched for them myself? And that information was given to me — and to others — before I’d even had a chance to tweak my privacy settings. The invasive nature of my first experience with Facebook unnerved me, so I never added any friends or information beyond my name and email.
I know from experiences with friends who have done stupid things online that the Internet, for all its neat features and conveniences, can be — to put it bluntly — a life ruiner. You’ve probably all read the articles about networking sites, Facebook in particular, getting people into trouble. Thankfully, we now have an informed, intelligent Commander in Chief who knows more about the Internet than simply how to use “the Google” to find out about “rumors on the Internets,” and President Barack Obama specifically instructed us almost a year ago to “Be careful what you post on Facebook.” (O noes, it’s a socialist conspiracy! We must do the OPPOSITE because surely the Kenyan usurper is trying to TRICK us! Quick, give Facebook and all its advertisers your social security number, bank pin, and some screen shots of the unicorn porn you were viewing all Mother’s Day 2010!)
In 2007, no Facebook information was public to the broader Internet. At the end of 2009, basic stuff like name and gender became searchable through Google. In December, the company added “likes” and friends to the Internet-public stockpile. In April 2010, it added photos. Without pressing a button, the average default public user would have seen dramatic changes in how his information was shared through Facebook between 2007 and 2010.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (who just looks like a snide little twit in sricki’s opinion)
And the whole thing is sketchier than much of anyone would have guessed. It turns out that Facebook stalks you even when you aren’t logged into your account:
A Computer Associates security researcher is sounding the alarm that Facebook’s controversial Beacon online ad system goes much further than anyone has imagined in tracking people’s Web activities outside the popular social networking site.
Beacon will report back to Facebook on members’ activities on third-party sites that participate in Beacon even if the users are logged off from Facebook and have declined having their activities broadcast to their Facebook friends.
That’s the finding published on Friday by Stefan Berteau, senior research engineer at CA’s Threat Research Group in a note summarizing tests he conducted.
Of particular concern is that users aren’t informed that data on their activities at these sites is flowing back to Facebook, nor given the option to block that information from being transmitted, Berteau said in an interview.
“It can happen completely without their knowledge, unless they are examining their network traffic at a very low level,” Berteau said.
The CA news comes after Facebook scrambled on Thursday night to tweak Beacon in order to calm complaints from privacy groups and Facebook users that the ad system is too intrusive and too confusing to opt out of.
Beacon is a major part of the Facebook Ads platform that Facebook introduced with much fanfare several weeks ago. Beacon tracks certain activities of Facebook users on more than 40 participating Web sites, including those of Blockbuster and Fandango, and reports those activities to the users’ set of Facebook friends, unless told not to do so.
Off-Facebook activities that can be broadcast to one’s Facebook friends include purchasing a product, signing up for a service and including an item on a wish list.
PC World, emphasis added
I don’t care how big on personal responsibility you are — I think any reasonable human being would admit that the above is… absolutely sleazy, sneaky, and something that the average person would never even begin to anticipate. I’d say I’m more vigilant than your “average” user, but even I am not certain what the implications of that really are. It certainly raised my hackles, despite my leading a relatively boring, limited, and uncomplicated (at least by modern standards) online life.
It’s angered a lot of other people, too. “Quit Facebook Day” may have been a failure in terms of the number of users who actually deleted their accounts (only about 30,000 out of over 500 million), but it kept the issue visible. Though there may not have been a mass exodus from the site, plenty of people are disturbed. I didn’t delete my account, and I bet I’m more bothered by the whole mess than most people.
There’s yet another class-action lawsuit being filed against Facebook for this most recent crap. Whether such measures will really go anywhere is up for debate, but despite the prevailing public opinion that any publicity is good publicity, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg does not particularly appear to be enjoying the bad press.
The reviews are in on Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance at the Wall Street Journal’s eighth D8, the All Things Digital conference. And the consensus is, things did not go well for the Facebook founder and CEO.
“Literally dissolving in a lake of his own sweat,” as described by D’s John Paczkowski, Zuckerberg fielded questions from the site’s executive producers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, without really answering any of them.
[. . .]
“There have been misperceptions that we are trying to make all information open,” he told Mossberg and Swisher. “That’s completely false.”
What is true, we may never know – other than Zuckerberg’s choreographed attempt, to present a benevolent social network unconcerned with its ability to make money in its selfless pursuit to serve the customer, grotesquely misses the mark.
MSNBC, emphasis added
But why am I writing all of this — why am I taking such perverse glee out of watching a man (who represents a site I think is just a waste of time) stand in front of the MSM and sweat — when I don’t even use most social networking sites?
Well, for one thing, who wouldn’t enjoy seeing the man who made comments like these sweat?
According to SAI sources, the following exchange is between a 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg and a friend shortly after Mark launched The Facebook in his dorm room:
Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuck: Just ask.
Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?
Zuck: People just submitted it.
Zuck: I don’t know why.
Zuck: They “trust me”
Zuck: Dumb fucks.
MSNBC, image and emphasis added
But mostly I care because I have a younger brother who is pretty free with his information online. I could probably check and see what the kid had for dinner if it so suited me. And while that sort of information is not dangerous, trivial junk along those lines is not all he posts on his Facebook… MySpace… Twitter… YouTube… and probably plenty of other sites I’ve never even heard of. He is a kid — and careless — and open. One day he will be looking for a job, and after all the horror stories I have read, I worry about the implications of the sharing on sites he is currently using online. Hell, I have vague misgivings that what I do on the blogs could potentially affect my job prospects one day.
And I’m picking on Facebook, but there are plenty of sites out there that are just as bad in many ways. In the end, the Federal Trade Commission may decide a lot of this — and Congress may change the rules on what is legal — but I think all of us can determine what is wrong. No, people should not really expect their online lives to be private. But they still do, and some of those expectations are quite understandable and fairly common sense. Expecting that Facebook will stop sending advertisers (and whomever else) information about where you go after you have logged out of your account is pretty damn reasonable. People don’t have time to pore over the changing guidelines of every website they use. Some people will pay attention and do the research, and some people simply know better than to open their yaps online, even about small, seemingly insignificant details. But what about average users? Who protects the common man/woman? If sites like Facebook aren’t willing to act in good faith, then hopefully someone will make them so that consumers can have some semblance of control over their information online. The rise of technology, and the Internet in particular, has given way to a whole new realm of privacy concerns. The truth is, privacy is — to a large extent — dead. Maybe the “solution” to all future Facebook-esque drama is to educate children when they’re young — “Don’t tell people on Facebook that you stole a street sign because it could lose you your job years later.” But will kids really listen if they can’t see immediate consequences to their actions? (Do they listen to anything we tell them already?)
I hope someone establishes and enforces some clearer guidelines, but what it all comes down to is that people are going to have to educate themselves better. Eventually, after enough people have suffered for their activities online, maybe we will all learn. And maybe we should stop trying to keep any kind of anonymity online — maybe the only solution is to take a page out of Blasky’s and John’s books: Use your full name for everything public, and be a gentleman whenever possible.
Maybe the only way to be sure these days is… if you don’t want the world to know it, just don’t do it.
Big Brother is watching. ; )
For general information and a timeline of recent charges/investigations against Facebook (along with Google, etc.) visit the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s (EPIC) “Facebook Privacy” page.
Satan… I mean Big Brother…. I mean, Facebook made me put that last bit in smaller text because it has so much incriminating information and… O noes… they’re coming for me… I… Oh hell, what I meant to say was, “I love Big Brother.”)