Sleeping Under Enon

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Facebook’s Product

Big Brother is, it seems, really quite interested in what web comics you spend your spare time reading. At least, that is what many internet users seem utterly convinced of. Given New Labour’s fascination with CCTV and other forms of monitoring (like the now-scrapped ID card scheme), or United States citizens’ general obsession with shadowy black-suited agents watching your every move for signs of terrorism, it hardly seems surprising that many fear for their privacy.

Indeed, our former government did have this alarming ability to lose, leak or sell off to private companies, all the private data they systematically went around collecting from all of its citizens. For security purposes, of course. It is difficult to trust a government is acting with your security in mind with the amount of security failings it managed to rack up in the 13 years Labour were in power, but perhaps that is just me.

Labour’s rubbish track record on data keeping aside, what I find curious are many people’s absolute fear of anyone knowing anything about anyone else. Take, for a rather obscure example, the Independent’s extension for Google’s Chrome browser. Owing to a fault with Google’s programming (and not the fault of the extension developers), the add-on had to have permission to access your browsing history in order for the program to work, despite it having no relevance to the extension itself. To many people, this was totally unacceptable and a sufficient reason for not installing, or uninstalling upon realising the apparent privacy breach, the said extension. To me, this puts the people seriously concerned by this into two possible categories; those who have browsing history that includes porn sites or sites conducive to illegal activities (notably piracy), or that they are so self-important as to think that The Independent really gives two shits about whether you visit Hotmail or Gmail to check your emails.

Obviously, not many people want to live in a society where every company or government knows all their personal habits, probably because they would find it somewhat creepy. Perhaps they would be worried that the state would use it for nefarious purposes. Such concerns are, to a certain extent, warranted and I agree that there is a line to be drawn on how much governments should know about its citizens, or how much personal data corporations are allowed to mine in the name of ‘market research’. This kind of principled disagreement to intrusions of privacy is hard to take seriously, however, when the same people are avid members of Facebook, or Twitter.

Facebook users and ‘Tweeters’ go out of their way to make as much of their lives, musings, likes, dislikes, favourite quotes and personal scores on trivial quizzes, as public and accessible as humanely possible. With many users accepting friend requests from someone who just so happened to share oxygen in the same room as them for about five minutes, it is not difficult to gain almost unlimited access into many people’s private lives. It is even common parlance to say that one is ‘facebook stalking’. Facebook has a notoriously bad privacy policy, even going so far as to refusing to let you delete your account with them once you’ve made one, and that is only going to worsen when they achieve their aim (or get feasibly close to) having their ‘Like’ button on every page on the web. Facebook sell data to companies. That’s how they make their revenue; targeted advertising. Facebook can be more specific in their demographics than any other company. If people are so worried about their privacy being abused, why are these same people giving it away by the bucket-load on social networking sites? Twitter is a running commentary for many people’s lives; given a week of following some users it would be ridiculously easy to make a highly detailed profile of those users.

So we have a contradiction. People do not want companies handling their private lives but simultaneously give them more personal data than most market researchers would even conceive of asking for. It strikes me as running parallel to people’s views about freedom of speech; you can say what you like so long as the majority find it tenable. Similarly, companies and governments can help themselves to as much data as they like so long as they tell your friends that information to. And maybe let them ‘like’ or comment on it.

For more information /commentary on Facebook’s lack of privacy:

Evolution of Privacy on Facebook

Graphic illustrating the ‘bewildering tangle of [privacy] options’

Guardian article on Facebook’s lack of privacy

Another Guardian article against Facebook’s ethics

Article on how to improve your privacy if you insist on still using Facebook

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