So I dumped Facebook a few months ago, which probably caught a few people by surprise. I’m a pretty social person, and a pretty public person, and by golly I think I was pretty “good” at Facebooking. I have an exciting circle of friends and I really liked catching up with all their cool projects and writing encouraging notes on their walls.
I don’t have a problem with sharing personal information, but I have a problem with the way Facebook acquires that information.
It’s a common misconception that Facebook only knows what you tell it. I’d probably still be on, if that were the case. But in slow measures Facebook keep pushing privacy limits, increasing their capabilities to do surreptitious data gathering. Just a few:
- Any non-facebook website you visit that has a “Like” button on it (most newspapers, popular blogs, sports sites, etc), whether you hit it or not, relays info back to Facebook without your permission. They keep a history of everything with a like button that you read on the internet, attached to your profile.
What’s extra creepy about this one is that they record your visit information by IP, so it works even when you’re logged out of Facebook.
- Facebook have been acquiring facial recognition companies and using the technology to automatically tag photos of you and the stuff you own. They passed it off as “helping you tag your photos more easily”, but this one’s hugely creepy to me. Knowing that they’re tagging my friends, examining background details, and snooping around in my photos even when I don’t want them to creeps me out.
- They recently (what precipitated my bailing) swapped out everyone’s public-facing e-mail address with an @facebook address. This is called a man-in-the-middle attack – when people mail you at that address, Facebook parses the mail for keywords to know even more about you, before passing it on to you.
To be clear – none of these methods of acquiring information about you are voluntary. They’re being really sneaky.
The Man/Machine Creepiness Test
In “The Age of Spiritual Machines”, Ray Kurzweil asks us to prepare for our future with super-intelligent computers by contrasting automated processes to a person. A computer recording your info to a database sounds pretty ho-hum. But if, for instance, Facebook employed a person to go through all your photos making notes, reading your personal e-mails, and browsing your internet history, all without telling you, you’d probably be freaked out. A computer can do this a million times faster and has an infallible memory.
The Government Creepiness Test
Another fun test is to swap in “The Government” instead of Facebook. If the Government were secretly collecting information, looking at your photos and snooping through your mail and watching your browsing history, would you have a problem with it? Ontario citizens threw a fit a few years ago when they added photos to driver’s licenses. So why should we trust a private for-profit organization with a million times as much data?
All of this to say that I’m not cool with the sneakyness.
Someone at Facebook can order up a report from your profile and know everything about you, your friends, and your surfing habits in intricate detail with a history going back years. You and I are probably not that interesting, but what about notable public figures? Future politicians? That guy who’s babysitting your kids? Wouldn’t it be interesting to peek? Wouldn’t it be the responsible thing to do?
To give Facebook the benefit of the doubt, they probably don’t have any secret evil motives, the data’s pretty much only used for advertising (which is often hilariously off-target) and even in my most sinister science-fiction imagination there’s not much someone’s going to be able to do with a picture of you drunk, throwing gang signs at a party, no matter how intelligent their supercomputer is.
But the fact is that this heap of information is being collected from you, without your permission, and there’s no way to turn it off, clear the cache, or delete that entry in the database besides dumping Facebook for good. I regret losing touch with a bunch of my extended friends and family, and I’d have even contemplated staying if they’d just given me the option to wipe out everything older than three months, or a page I could use to manage and delete the information they’d been collecting. But the only way to opt out is to kill your account.
(PS: If you want to wander into paranoid delusion territory, I’ve read enough science fiction to probably concoct some interesting scenarios by which that super computer could in fact use that drunken photo for evil. History is full of precedents of governments turning on their own citizens, corrupt politicians blackmailing eachother, assassinations of opposing government parties, and people integral to various scientific advancements mysteriously driving off cliffs – if you were involved in that kind of business, having an enormous, shareholder-owned database of excruciatingly detailed info about important people would be pretty useful.)
(PPS: There’s an argument that you can make regarding Google doing much of the same data-collection, which I won’t dispute. But that doesn’t dismiss Facebook from criticism. Google have definitely got the creepiness thing mastered, and I’ll write about that sometime in the future. They are considerably more difficult to avoid if you try to do anything productive online.)