September 26, 2011

Technology: Facebook Has Orwellian Plans And It’s Kind Of Creepy


Facebook is not my favorite place to “hang out.” It’s great for becoming reacquainted with long lost friends, and to keep in better touch with friends and relatives who live far and wide. There are some who like to communicate minute details about their life, and many like to play games with other users of the social network. You can upload family photos - or share some of the big exciting milestone’s you want to share, with your friends and family regardless of where they live in proximity to you. It all sounds pretty benevolent - until you kick the tires.

My personal discomfort with Facebook stems from their cavalier attitude about user privacy, as well as their ability to market, and monetize, each person’s “personal” information. Facebook’s Terms of Service (TOS) allows them to sell registered user’s information to businesses interested in users online, and offline, activities. Granted, Facebook maintains that they do not sell personally identifiable information, which is terrific. At the same time, I find it difficult to believe that a corporation currently valued at $80 billion dollars, with 800 million registered users, makes the safeguarding of every user’s private information contained within their servers, their top priority.

I understand the positive impact Facebook can have for many people. Various reports in the media have highlighted how the social network can assist in finding a new job. It is also well documented that prospective employers screen applicants by looking at Facebook pages. Spotify, the new music streaming service, uses Facebook to promote their service. Colleges are also using the social network to learn about applicants.

Facebook recently concluded their f8 developer conference in San Francisco, where they announced 2 new features, that they will be rolling out to users on September 30th, 2011. One new feature is called “Timeline.” According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, It's how you can tell the whole story of your life on a single page.” Daniel Terdimen at CNET reports that Timeline is an extremely significant change to the way Facebook looks. With Timeline, users will see several new sections, including visual tiles, ways to get all their apps, and a cover photo.”

CNET’s Terdimen also wrote about the expansion of Open Graph, the map that reflects each registered user’s connection throughout our planet, and how Facebook is expanding upon that. Terdimen wrote:

“When a user shares a post normally, it goes into their news feed. But when that user adds activity through Open Graph, it will go into the Ticker and into the Timeline, but not into the news feed unless that's what's desired. It's a lightweight stream of everything going on around you, Zuckerberg said, and it's the first time Facebook has enabled sharing activities other than simply "liking" something, such as listening to a song, watching a movie, reading a book, or even cooking a meal.

And Zuckerberg said that he expects this will enable people to create "a completely new class of social apps than what was ever possible before," including those about music, movies, TV, books, and any media as well as lifestyle apps that let users express all kinds of things about their lives: their runs, their naps, their moods, and much more.

All told, the new feature will allow "frictionless experiences," "real-time serendipity," and finding patterns and activity, Zuckerberg said.”

So Facebook wants to know what someone cooks for dinner, the wine chosen for a meal, where you vacation, what book you are reading, what films and television shows you enjoy, on top of the fact that we have already shared our names, date of birth, where we work, how many children we have, where we went to school, what social causes we support, who our friends are, and the list goes on and on.

Is Facebook for real? A registered user is supposed to find “real-time serendipity” sharing all of this information, so Facebook’s valuation can hit the stratosphere? Does anyone see through the smoke and mirrors? Sharing this information is a marketing dream - so that more ads and pitches can be tailor made for each person, so that more habits can be chronicled, to sell to the highest bidder. No thank you.

While Zuckerberg says Timeline is “the story of your life” - I’m not Abe Lincoln, with biographer’s banging on my door to write the story of my life. While my life and it’s intricacies MIGHT be of interest to those who actually know me, I will not be posting that I had a Vitamin Water this afternoon, after I watched the “Bourne Trilogy” on Blu-ray last week.

Ben Parr at Mashable, in an opinion piece wrote:

Facebook has finally done it. It’s just a few updates away now from euthanizing the concept of privacy, already ailing on its network.

Timelines and Open Graph, introduced at this week’s f8 conference, sit on either edge of the sword that’s just been run through privacy’s heart. It is finished. It is done.”

This raises a larger question, do we have a right to expect some modicum of privacy when we register for social networks? I think registered users should have to “opt in” to features like this, rather than “opt out.”

CNETs Don Reisinger’s article “Facebook Changes Creeping Out Some Customers” details many apprehensions that have been voiced by Facebook users. He wrote that:

“The fear among some users relates to what some say could become a potentially worrisome privacy situation on the social network, led by Timeline and changes to Open Graph.

The headline that caught my attention the most, when I was reading about these new features, was a Computerworld headline that said “Facebook's Timeline will be boon for hackers.” Reporter Gregg Keizer wrote:

“Facebook's new Timeline will make it even easier for criminals and others to mine the social network for personal information they can use to launch malicious attacks and steal passwords, a researcher said today.

Timeline, which Facebook unveiled yesterday at a developer conference and plans to roll out to users in a few weeks, summarizes important past events in a one-page display.”

The Computerworld article cited the student who bragged that it took him 45 minutes of online research to hack Governor Sarah Palin’s yahoo account.

In January of this year, California Attorney General Kamala Harris issued a warning related to the personal information that Facebook users share freely online. A predatory California hacker was able to gain access to hundreds of women’s email accounts and Facebook pages, with information gleaned from Facebook. The Attorney General said:

“George Samuel Bronk, 23, of Citrus Heights, faces six years in state prison after entering guilty pleas today in Sacramento Superior Court to seven felonies including computer intrusion, false impersonation and possession of child pornography.

From December 2009 through September 2010, Bronk accessed e-mail accounts and Facebook pages of people in 17 states, as well as residents of England. He essentially found answers to the women's e-mail security questions in information they had posted on their Facebook sites.

Bronk targeted his victims by scanning Facebook for women who also posted their e-mail addresses there. He then contacted the woman's e-mail service, pretending he was the legitimate customer, and claimed to have forgotten the password. Bronk was able to correctly answer security questions posed by the e-mail service by finding the answers on victims' Facebook pages.

Some of the security questions posed by e-mail providers included, "What is your high school mascot?" "What is your father's middle name?" "What is your favorite food?" and "What is your favorite color?"

Once Bronk gained access to the e-mail account, he changed the password and the victim was locked out.

Bronk searched the victim's "sent mail" folder for nude or semi-nude photographs and videos, which he often sent to the victim's entire e-mail address book. He also gained access to some victims' Facebook accounts by clicking the "Forgot Your Password?" link and asking for a new password to be sent to the victim's e-mail account, which he now controlled. In many cases, he posted the photographs to victims' Facebook pages and to other Internet sites and made comments on the Facebook sites of friends.

The California hacker was sentenced to 4 years in prison. While we may not hear about these crimes very often, it’s important to be vigilant about the personal information people share online. Since Facebook isn’t a watchdog for it’s users, we all have to watch out for each other.  

Facebook is opening a new chapter in the company’s history, and they have assumed that users will be eager to embrace the change. I will not be using Timeline or Open Graph. If it’s an all or nothing proposition, I guess I’ll be using Google +.

The German government forced Facebook to sign a “voluntary” code of privacy, to protect users data, after Facebook’s “Like” button was found to violate German privacy laws, due to the consumer profile that is created by the social network. How can the average person find out what this “profile” is about?

I believe that Facebook user’s should have access to the information being collected about themselves, and if requested, you should be able to view the data. They should develop a Freedom of Information Act Request, in an “app” format, for Facebook. If I can’t see what personal information about myself, is being bought and sold, then I don’t want to be a part of their scheme.

Maybe it would be helpful for Facebook to appoint an independent Ombudsman, who looks out for the privacy interests of it’s users. The Facebook Ombudsman could independently review the business practices of the company, how private data is collected and handled, handle “Facebook Freedom of Information Act” requests, and develop punitive financial measures for any breach of privacy.

Offering a constructive suggestion will most likely fall on deaf ears, but it’s worth a try. Otherwise I may be taking my bat and ball and heading home.

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