Well Known Biases

Politics, Economics, and the Law

The Increasingly Troublesome Baggage of Social Networking

Social networking is now the method by which most of us keep up with one another. I’ve done Myspace, Facebook, Google+, and have dipped my toe into LinkedIn. Most people in my age group have at least an active Facebook, and a handful maintain a G+ account as well. Myspace is a ghost town, but still has a few users. And who else remembers Friendster? Add to this YouTube, the various photo uploading sites, webcam services where you can chit-chat with complete strangers, the abomination unto God and man that is Twitter, and countless more.

These networks have given us all a forum in which to stand up and say “Hey! Look at me!” and we’ve wholeheartedly taken them up on this offer. Whatever part of the human mind makes this sort of thing irresistible has been expertly marketed to, and it should come as no surprise that the people who own these sites have found their own way to capitalize on our deep-seated need to tell everyone everything. We’ve solved a number of market research problems by telling the entire internet what we enjoy, think about, and want to do and buy. All this information divulged without ever having been formally requested. I have a great many friends who are constantly ‘liking’ this and that on Facebook, despite knowing full well that they’re acting as unpaid market research subjects, and that this benefits them in no concrete way.

It is by now fairly well known that Facebook retains your data forever. I began to have my own suspicions as to this being the case when the service would occasionally glitch, and display items from years ago. There are also allegations that Facebook collects information to build a skeletal “shadow profile” of people who are not (yet?) users of the service. And let’s not forget the troubling facial recognition software which “helps” you by automatically tagging people. The truly staggering amount of money that is made selling this information to marketers is an obvious motivation for harvesting and retaining it, yet there appears to be more to the story.

Articles are beginning to appear, mainly on tech-oriented websites, concerning usage of social media information by banks and other money-lenders, both to help assess you as a credit risk, and to additional people to whom they can market their products and services. More disconcerting still is the fact that the government increasingly monitors social networks for their own purposes. The Department of Homeland Security keeps tabs on people and news outlets, and monitors them for dissent. This information is then made available to the various other alphabet soup agencies. Not to be outdone, the FBI has expressed interest in a program to automatically collect information from various social and news sites, filter it, and plot the location from where it originated onto a map.

Facebook is certainly commonly thought to be the worst offender, but G+ should be catching up soon, as Google has changed its terms of service, and intends to fully integrate their various services, all in an effort to better serve you. Whether or not this will in fact better serve the end-user remains to be seen, but I would assume it will better serve Google’s pocketbook, and in the meantime could certainly streamline the process of information gathering by third parties.

Towards the end of this past year I decided to abandon the Facebook account that I’d had for several years, and to begin a new one under a pseudonym. I did this for various reasons, privacy being only one of them. This certainly won’t provide any deterrence to an entity with a genuine interest in discovering who I am, but it provides at least a small measure of separation between my name, and my online presence. Eben Moglen would argue that this still makes me part of the problem, and I’m inclined to agree with him, though I’m not yet sure what to do about it. The intelligent and principled thing to do would be to commit “web suicide” and never look back, but few of us would use these services to begin with if they didn’t provide some utility. However I have greatly scaled back my online persona, and have created my own personal policies regarding what sort of information I intend to provide. It’s not perfect, but it’s some kind of start.

The ever-building mountain of evidence that social networking is being exploited by various parties, none with our best interests in mind, should act as a reminder that it’s exceedingly foolish to depend upon another party to safeguard our information and maintain our privacy.

Additional links:

Europe v. Facebook
Electronic Privacy Information Center on ‘Facebook Privacy’

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