Why I Love and Distrust Facebook

zuckerbergHow can you not trust this face.  He’s the face of Facebook.  I love him and don’t trust him for as far as I can throw him. (According to celebritiesheight.com, Mark is 5’9″ and 175 pounds.  So the odds are that I can throw him off balance, but not much else).   He may be a nice guy — he may not, if you believe the Winkelvoss twins — but the multi-billion business that Mark Zuckerberg created has brought joy and angst to my world and here’s why.  Facebook,  thanks to all of the connectivity that it gives me , is a powerful tool.   And like any powerful tool, if not used properly it can be dangerous.  Now here’s the important part of my thought syllogism:  most people don’t use Facebook properly and so, for most people, it is dangerous.

I’ll admit up-front that I’m not aware of any academic studies about  Facebook that documents any devasting impacts upon law-abiding, god-fearing Americans but I know a lot of privacy experts and Facebook scares them more than Miley Cyrus with a cold sore on her tongue.    The MIT Technology Review declared recently that Facebook has collected the most extensive data set ever assembled on human social behavior,  much of it based upon your personal data.   And the folks at MIT are not only undeniably smart, but they aren’t alone.   The Journal of Privacy and Confidentiality just published an analysis of social media which found that notice and consent mechanisms don’t adequate address consumers’ online privacy concerns.   They also document how the amount and scope of personal information that Facebook users reveal has markedly increased over time, making such much more personal data available to  Facebook, third-party apps, and advertisers.   Chicago-Kent Law professor Lori Andrews wrote a book in 2012 called “I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy,” and she details the dangers of data-mining technologies upon which Facebook’s business relies.
For example,  Facebook launched a new feature this year called Graph Search.   Based upon your profile being made widely available, it allows users to make structured searches to filter through friends, friends of friends, and strangers.     Sounds benign enough until the smart folks at EFF made me aware of the fact that Facebook was making shared information discoverable when previously it was hard—if not impossible—to find at a large scale.   For data-miners, this stuff is virtual gold.   Actually, it really is virtual gold and it is powering so many of the virtual services available on the Internet.  Like Google, Amazon and other large successful Internet companies,  Facebook has developed a business model based upon its access to personal data.   Facebook has been accused of going too far — in one instance the company used members’ faces, names and likes to sponsor products and services.   That lawsuit ended recently with Facebook paying out $20 million.   Google recently announced  a similar “shared endorsements”functionality that raises similar concerns but, to the company’s credit, it created a fairly simple one-stop settings page so that Google+ members can protect against unwanted use of personal pictures.
However, Facebook is different from other I-net companies offering free services;  it relies upon highly personal information.    Unlike the other companies, Facebook monetizes information about who you are, what you look like, what activities you do and with whom you associate.     Facebook’s other infuriatingly nasty distinguishing factor is that it is continually changing its privacy policy so just when you think you’ve protected yourself from undue intrusion,  it has pulled a Lucy Van Pelt disappearing football trick on you.
What appears to be inarguable is that Facebook users don’t understand the ramifications of their liberties with the site.   “Tagging” someone in a photo seems innocuous until you understand that all of your friends, and those of the tagger, will be notified and shown the photo in which you are tagged.   Your boss, your workmates, your future employer, your parents and everyone else that can impact your life will see — pretty much forever — that day you got drunk and sloppy or took that day off work because you needed to see the premiere of some movie about which you have no recollection.    How many users consider that if your employer reviews Facebook activity and sees a ton of it while you’re supposed to be working, they might use this against you at some point.
But wait, it gets worse.  Facebook is also now revealing your mobile phone number and physical address to marketers. Facebook claims this info won’t be shared with to third parties unless you explicitly give consent.    Oh, they don’t mention that there are an estimated 275 settings to be considered on a Facebook profile.   And privacy advocates are rightfully concerned that minors, especially, are unable to understand the implications of giving away such sensitive data.
Another big concern: Facebook apps.   It has been reported that dozens of apps forward tracking and demographic data about users to third-party advertising and marketing firms, often without the member’s knowledge or consent. While this practice violates Facebook’s rules for app developers, the company has not booted miscreant apps until members have raised an uproar about them.  Facebook isn’t lenient — it is greedy. Facebook has much of its  information because it has found ingenious ways to collect data as people socialize from these apps. These apps often collect information about what news articles you read,  to what songs you listen, along with  age, gender,  relationship status and mobile-phone numbers. In 2011, Facebook introduced Timelines that invite people to add historical information such as places they have lived and worked. Yes, Timelines provides an easy interface where your friends, and depending on your privacy settings, just about anyone can gain quick access to all the things that you’ve ever posted on Facebook.  Even worse, unsavory types, like stalkers and thieves, can now just click on the year and month that they’re interested in and Facebook’s Timelines takes them right to it. Stalkers aside, this data creates some very revealing and (to certain companies/interests) valuable information about you.
This all leads me to my following conclusions about Facebook.  Thanks Mark, for figuring out a free way for me to keep in touch with family and friends.   I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because I’m not.   But people — especially those under age 25 — need to consider the following proactive protections from your company:
  • Make sure your “friends” are people you personally know. Unfriend any that you’re not sure about.
  • Never post you or your family’s full birth dates. 
  • Don’t mention where you live or whether you are home alone.
  • For goodness sakes, please don’t put pictures of your children tagged with their names!
  • Be VERY careful about responding to any Facebook messages, especially ones that may come from someone you don’t know.  Too many of them are phishing scams.
  • It’s best to limit the sharing of your location on Facebook as much as possible or not share it at all. 
  • Don’t post comments or photos that you wouldn’t want published in your local newspaper.
  • Don’t rely upon your privacy settings.   Even if you have  restricted your privacy settings on Facebook to just friends, think about the possibility that a friend is logged into a publicly accessible computer and forgets to log out or has their cell phone stolen.  You can’t expect that your friends are the only ones who have access to your status and location just because your privacy settings are set to friends only.
  • Remove your phone number, geographic location and other personal info from your profile. After logging in, click Profile / Edit Profile to make the changes.
  • Set all of the many privacy settings to “Friends Only”. Click Account / Privacy Settings to control access to your status, photos, posts, and other information.
  • Avoid using Facebook apps.
  • Anything you do on Facebook can and may be used against you in a court of law.   A ranting status post or anything written in anger/lack-of-sleep/impairment/confusion/revenge/childbirth/dental surgery or any other intense mindset might get you labeled aggressive or abusive by a lawyer trying to make a case against you.
  • Review your Facebook Timeline to see if there is anything that might cause you trouble with friends, family, employers or anyone else.
  • Turn on the Tag Review and Post Review features so that you can decide what gets posted about you before a post goes live.

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