Privacy Is Dead on Facebook. Get Over It.

By Helen A.S. Popkin
|  Wednesday, Jan 13, 2010  |  Updated 12:10 PM EDT
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Privacy Is Dead on Facebook. Get Over It.

Privacy? Sorry, not on facebook.

Once upon a time at Facebook, or so the story from an anonymous Facebook employee goes, there was a general password employees could use to access Facebook accounts. For kicks and giggles, some Facebook employees, including the one recently interviewed on the Rumpus Web site, did just that.

Two Facebook employees got fired, says Anonymous Facebook Employee, for manipulating user profile information. Others, such as Anonymous Facebook Employee, just peeked.

Is this story even true? Regarding the veracity of Anonymous Facebook Employee’s claims, a company spokesperson stated via e-mail: “This piece contains the kind of inaccuracies and misrepresentations you would expect from something sourced 'anonymously,' and we'll leave it at that.” 

Specifics of the alleged inaccuracies above were not addressed, nor was this other thing: You know all those e-mails you send and receive on Facebook, along with those sent and received by more than 350 million users worldwide? They live forever on a Facebook database that doesn’t require a tool and a reason to access it; just a search query, says Anonymous Facebook Employee.

Shocked? Whether or not this story is in any way true, you shouldn’t be. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently went on record speaking the same sentiments blathered by the big money data farmers that came before him; none of the cool kids care about privacy. Neither should you.

“You have zero privacy anyway,” Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy famously said in 1999. “Get over it.”

This past December, Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt glibly stated in a CNBC interview, “If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

Does that include your address, credit card statements, social security number, medical records, legal and financial documents, competitive business secrets, fan fiction, bad poetry, love letters or any ill-advised photos or videos taken in one's hormone-addled youth? Schmidt didn’t say.

Then, last week, during an interview at the 2010 TechCrunch awards, Facebook’s Zuckerberg said this:

" … in the last 5 or 6 years, blogging has taken off in a huge way and all these different services that have people sharing all this information. People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that's evolved over time.”

Zuckerberg was addressing last month’s latest privacy evisceration on Facebook; the one that ripped the curtain off user activities, photos, even birthdays, making a whole lot of information previously controlled by users  available for anyone on God’s green Google (advertisers, identity thieves, stalkers et al.) to see.

What’s more, the thick coating of doublespeak made understanding and changing Facebook privacy settings less intuitive than ever.

For some casual Internet users, Zuckerberg’s smooth 'n savvy sound bites may seem to make sense. It’s true, we as a society are less bashful (a lot of us full-on narcissistic) when it comes to sharing the personal minutiaeb — be it breakfast choice or sexual exploits — previously kept behind closed doors.

But choosing to share your bra color in your Facebook status in an effort to spread breast cancer awareness — or just because — is a whole lot different than having your metaphorical shirt ripped off in the middle of the roller rink by a social network that built its empire luring you and assuring that you that it had nothing but respect for your privacy.

Facebook stomped predecessors MySpace and Friendster not (only) because it wasn’t lousy with glitter GIFs or hobbled by crippled servers seemingly riddled with the consumption. College students, then their parents and grandparents, flocked to what is now the world’s largest social network site because it offered non-tech heads wary of cyberspace a secluded booth at the back of the Internet where they could hang out with chosen circle of family and friends.

Now, as Facebook successfully copies Twitter in order to compete with it, and monetizes even the virtual kitchen sink as it moves toward its initial public stock offering (IPO), your privacy is the first thing to go. While tech and business bloggers call shenanigans, Facebook’s general users are lulled into compliance via public relations doublespeak meant to make you believe this corporate titan is doing it for you, all for you.

For example, according to Facebook’s privacy guide, information that users previously had the power to make private — your photo, city, friends, networks and fan pages — are public and searchable, for your own good:

“Making connections — finding people you know, learning about people, searching for what people are saying about topics that interest you — is at the core of our product. This can only happen when people make their information available and choose to share more openly.”

Unmentioned is the fact that by decreasing control over your profile, Facebook can compete with Twitter by bringing in more traffic when your info shows up on Google and other search engines. (Meanwhile, users knew Twitter was open and searchable going in.)

Ripping the privacy carpet out from under its users is the kind of shifty behavior that will no doubt result in lawsuits topping that of Facebook’s Beacon debacle back in 2007, when user purchases and other Internet activity popped up in Facebook's "news feed" for all friends to see. But what will most users do? Quit Facebook? Maybe. But probably not.

While there are those privacy advocates who will make a big blogging deal of doing just that, most of us will stay for the many positive aspects Facebook offers: Connection with far-away friends and family, a one-stop shop for free e-mail and FarmVille. Technotica, of course, will stay on Facebook as long as you’re still there, as it’s my job to screech about the importance of your privacy and blah blah blah.

Because here’s the thing: Privacy is important — as important, if not more important, than it ever was. You have a right to access popular technology without worrying that anonymous Facebook employees are rifling photos or e-mails. In the larger picture, it is a company’s responsibility to spell out policy changes in clear language free of legalese and public relations doubletalk.

 

What’s more, as we live more of our lives online, this goes beyond Facebook. Privacy isn’t just about you, even if you have nothing to hide. Privacy is  also about those in power abusing personal information, or those in power having their personal information abused in ways that can eventually affect us, the little people.

It’s not impossible that Facebook may fall under the weight of its privacy follies. Remember MySpace? Remember Friendster? Come to think of it, Friendster wasn’t all that bad. Maybe it’s time to give Friendster another try.

Friend Helen A.S. Popkin on Facebook or follow her on Twitter, and see her personal information flapping in the breeze.

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