Saturday, February 12, 2011

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook: The biggest threat to privacy since the NSA

How can Time Magazine name someone who is hell-bent on eliminating your privacy as their "Person of the Year"? It might be hard to believe but that's exactly what they did when they gave the coveted title to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last year.

Zuckerberg has publicly stated that 'privacy doesn't exist' and that the 'illusion of privacy needs to go away'. A quick glance at a few random public profiles on the social network would make one believe that many of Facebook's 500 million plus members have totally bought into Zuckerbergs lie. Facebook is a dangerous example of how ordinarily rational individuals quickly set aside their most deeply held belief in privacy and proprietary in order to be part of the 'cool crowd'.

As an avid Facebook user, I see the value of the service in many contexts. If you're keeping up with friends, family, and colleagues, the service definitely make it easier and a lot more fun to do so. But that's not how most people use Facebook. Most people throw open the doors and accept every friend request they receive whether they know the person or not. It becomes a game of who has the most friends instead of having anything to do with meaningful connections.

While that 'come one, come all' attitude might not be such a bad thing, it has to be balanced with a certain amount of common sense; something many Facebook members don't seem to have or at least choose not to use. With a friends list of total strangers, these people will post the most intimate details of their lives in excruciating detail. We can learn when someone last had sex, when they have their period, when they're going on vacation, and sometimes how long they'll be away from their unattended house, allowing a opening for an enterprising burglar to do his thing while they're away.

None of these things are Mark Zuckerberg's or Facebooks fault of course, it's just a function of people 'sharing' with their 'friends'. But the site actively promotes allowing more and more open access to your information. New features that reveal personal information are often turned on with very little announcement and the onerous is on the user to turn it off, and sharing information about your friends with fun applications that often harvest that information is not only easy, it's encouraged by Facebook.

The service also provides an incredible opportunity to create fairly sophisticated profiles of users. By visiting someone's profile, you can learn the movies, products, and people they like. You can learn their marital and parental status, their age, and where they live. Sure, all those things could be turned off but that wouldn't be fun! Using nothing more than a very simple script, Facebook (or anyone else who might have the desire to do so) can easily learn just about anything they want about you and they can (and do) sell that information to marketers who use it to inundate you with advertising, both online and off.

Make no mistake, you are not Facebook's 'customer' or 'member', you are their product. They are selling you to whoever wants to buy you and the price doesn't seem to be all that high.

So how do you protect yourself from such intrusion? Well, the most obvious advice would be 'don't use Facebook' but that's not reality. Most people don't really see how huge the threat to their privacy is when they use the service so convincing them to completely shut their account down is nearly impossible.

The easiest way to protect yourself is to limit the amount of information you provide to Facebook or its partners. Don't put your real phone number into the service (your friends either have it or can message you for it), don't allow games and other applications to have access to your personal information or your friends list, and practice being more conscious about what you share in status updates instead of mindlessly posting without giving it a second thought.

Mark Zuckerberg is not a friend to Facebook members and using Facebook is always about agreeing to compromise your privacy in exchange for a dubiously useful service. It's time we kicked Facebook to the curb for something that acts in a more responsible and ethical way. Until we do, though, let's not feed the monster as it rapes our privacy.

At least let's make it a bit of a challenge for them.

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