Is Facebook Evil? privacy leaks, data flows and conspiracy theories
16 May 2010: Since originally writing this article in Oct 2007, debates over facebook privacy concerns have mushroomed. Check the updates/links posted at the end of the piece to track the discussion. Although, the the problem of the centralization of your life-data in facebook still remains…
Should we care about privacy? Much privacy talk can come across as anachronistic bourgeois individualism, seemingly getting in the way of what social networking is all about: the flow of information – sharing and multiplying social connections between users.
So when a report by Sophos security (2007) highlighted that facebook’s privacy practices remain suspect, both in terms of its default settings and common member behaviour, will it affect the average fb member?
To summarise the Sophos report:
- a random snapshot of 200 users in the London Facebook network… with more than 1.2 million members…found that a staggering 75 percent allow their profiles to be viewed by any other member, regardless of whether or not they have agreed to be friends.
- 41 percent of Facebook users were prepared to divulge personal information to a complete stranger (a small plastic frog called Freddi Staur – an anagram of ‘ID Fraudster’)
Controversy over fb privacy is nothing new, for example, when it innovated newsfeeds. Or divulged what would appear to be private member information to searches. Actually, its privacy controls are now rather advanced and fine-grained, though still rely on member intervention in figuring out the settings – have you? Unlikely. Shazia Mowlabaccus highlights that 80% of members altered nothing when fb recently opened up their network to search engines.
But there’s more. Search engines come in a lot varieties, and a new ‘data-mining’ breed such as Spock.com and Pipl.com is emerging which dig far, far deeper. These trawl what’s called the INvisible or deep web and at the same time gather user data from multiple sources. Threats to privacy accelerate when data from different sources ‘leak’ (flow?) and are sutured, which is exactly what these new search engines do.
If that doesn’t get you worried, then fb conspiracy theories abound in relation to its ‘right-wing’ origins and USA Intelligence agencies involvement – see especially Josh Smith’s post. fb’s SVG (scalable vector graphs for enhanced searching) supposedly mimic an (auto?)-panoptica structure enabling the centralization of everyone’s information on the net.
fb may be fast becoming a bounded and super-surveilled ‘internet’ for its addicted members. And watching this albumoftheday video1 – gets really interesting nearer the end – it’s difficult not to conclude that fb is evil!2
Such glib declarations however fail grasp that social networking in our current militarized-capitalist-control societies is developing in terms of the break/flow of information.
Societies aren’t exactly in mortal dread because everything is coded – the family is coded, death is coded; but what makes societies panic is when something or other breaks down, something that forces the codes to crack…Capitalism is the only social formation which presupposes, as its condition of emergence, the breakdown of all preceding codes. In this sense, the flows of capitalism are decoded flows, and this poses the following problem: how could a society, with of all of its repressive formations, create itself on the basis of what constituted the terror of all other social formations: namely, the decoding of flows.3
31/10/07: To escape the surveillance-control of closed-centralised social networks (and note that Microsoft has recently bought a stake in fb), de-centralized networks built on open source software may be a way forward?
10/11/07: fb has announced a new ‘Social Ads’ scheme (Beacon), which your friends ‘endorse’ products – urgh! Participation is supposed to be consensual, but an informative post by Daniel Solove argues otherwise.
2/12/07: fb has now changed their auto opt-in policy for Beacon, though privacy issues still remain as Josh Catone highlights. To effectively block Beacon collecting personal data, use the Firefox browser and follow these instructions on wikiHow. However, a PCWorld article raises a disturbing feature of Beacon:
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.
15/08/09: See this useful guide to set your Facebook privacy
23/04/10: How to Restore Your Privacy on Facebook
10/05/10: The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook – a useful visual representation of the steady erosion of fb privacy in relation to its default settings (what users often don’t bother to alter) – click the dates on the right-hand side to view changes. While fb continues to expand its user-base (over 400 million active users to-date), its increasingly problematic privacy practices appear to be becoming more exposed?
Facebook Privacy: A Bewildering Tangle of Options – useful infographic
Decentralize the web with Diaspora – “an open source personal web server that will put individuals in control of their data” – a project worth investing in
15/05/10: How to Quit Facebook Without Actually Quitting Facebook – this post is also useful for highlighting the privacy (non-)workings of facebook
Facebook and “radical transparency” (a rant) – a thoughtful (non-rantish) reflection by the researcher, danah boyd, on the implications of privacy in the world of fb
Quit Facebook today – self-explanatory
17/05/10: Reclaim(facebook)privacy.org – follow the instructions
28/05/10: Facebook have responded to criticism over its privacy settings by offering a redesign – for a guide to the ‘new’ settings, see this lifehacker article. Though, Privacy International maintains that its response is a red-herring because, “Facebook operates on a business model that requires it to monetise the data harvested from customers.”
1 Thanks to Ellie Wong for posting the link on fb.
2 See this article which includes a response from a fb spokesperson denying any links with USA Intelligence agencies Facebook Responds
3 DELEUZE / ANTI OEDIPE ET MILLE PLATEAUX, Cours Vincennes : the nature of flows – 14/12/1971. I’ll aim to develop this line of thought in another post.