Recently, someone commented negatively on the subject of Facebook selling data to intelligence agencies. I wrote out a quick reasoning why that wasn’t a big deal.
1) Through your credit profile and itemized credit statements, marketers and other institutions can gather a strong picture of who you are, whether they do it generally by extrapolating demographic trends or individually on just you. Walmart, Amazon and others already adjust the products they suggest to you and the coupons they send you via snail mail, email or any other communication method based on your habits and the general habits of your demographic. Just using your statements alone, your credit card company – and the merchants you buy from, and the third-parties that work with all of the above on their promotions and internal services – can figure out many things about you. Where you are at any given time, how much you spend, what places you frequent, what items you like to order, how regular you are with bill payments… From there, you can imply how much salary people are being paid, their social habits, holiday routines, a locational tracker and their general lifestyle risk. Banks and insurance companies can build up similar profiles, which is how they assign risk and judge worthiness for coverage or loans. All this should be familiar to you – and that’s not even the whole picture.
2) Government has access to all of the above, plus they have census data, tax returns, health system expenditures and other such individual data provided through government services. Governmental organizations often have vetting power over most financial transactions, most mortgage and loan plans and servicing, plus many other social-protection programs that set the government as watchdog. If they decided to build a file on you, they’d have a heck of a lot to work with.
2a) National security in the US and Canada under various agencies and partnerships has spawned programs that already watch all, or almost all, of your telephone, email and online communications. Their only obstacle is the sheer amount of data they have to work with. The NSA just finished building a massive complex to house their data collection and analysis wing, and it’s sole job is to collect everything said or written on the North American continent, and sift through it for any watchwords – usually terrorism, but anything that’s of current interest. Mobile providers routinely turn over locational data without warrants here in the US, and warrants for cell phone records are apparently very easily obtained in 2012. Not to mention the mobile providers who let security agencies collect their data directly. Basically, if you’ve used any communication technology, there’s a good chance someone else has a pretty full record of when, where, what and how; it may mean nothing to them now, but they can always look closer at it later.
3) Your online activity at work is not your own. It’s legal (to an extent) for bosses to install keyloggers, watch your activity on your desktop in real-time, monitor and block parts of your online viewing behavior, and read through and keep anything “private” you access via work computers. All sites track every bit of activity that they can while you’re on that site, and that’s also attached to IP and MAC address, should they wish. You do a search on Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc? Great – they’ve got the info and linked it to all the other data they’ve collected on you. They update all further search results partially based on your previous searches, and use it in general to update everyone’s search results. If you use their browser, you’re also sending them a lot more data that may or may not be deleted, and which is probably not. Every site tracks your activity, as much as can be helped. If you use Gmail, they comb through your email to provide you with targeted ads around the Gmail site. Google collects every single bit of data that they can get from you and then uses it to improve services throughout your neighborhood, your demographic, your country and the world. It IS its own intelligence agency. If there is reason to be paranoid about the government becoming Big Brother, then there is also reason to fear the other future dystopia: corporations becoming Big Brother.
4) It’s more and more important for individuals to be searchable online. If you have no online presence, that says something about you which may not bode well for your future employability. You are either not equipped re: modern technology, you have something to hide, or you haven’t done anything of note so no one has bothered mentioning you. Bosses (and future business partners, or friends, or anybody really) want to be able to assess your comfort with technology, your social influence and your risk levels – which the Internet makes easy to do at one sitting. Being a smart user of social media is just another part of the interview and vetting process.
In a general sense, one shouldn’t be scared of sharing one’s self on the Internet. If YOU are the one doing it, you have direct control over what is said about you online. This is important when applying for schools and jobs, or even as potential friends and acquaintances. It’s almost second nature to do immediately do a search on the name as a first step to finding out who they are. First, it is best that you bring out the correct points that you want people to know about you. If you’re saying stupid things online and making yourself look bad, that’s a behavior that probably carries itself over to offline life. Your whole life is more or less a constant “sell” of who you are, and any marketer knows that you have to set the agenda, not others. Second, you need to have SOME presence, regardless if you want to be in control or not. If there is nothing online about you, that tends to imply that you were so unimportant that you made no mark in today’s society. People participate in social gatherings, do runs and walks for good causes, get published in journals and magazines, sign their names to online petitions, comment in forums and messageboards, become members of academic or hobby groups in university, high school and in working life, etc. – all of these usually leave some sort of online footprint. If those footprints cannot be found – or found easily – then it is highly likely you’ll be written off. Better off to have a footprint and manage as much of it yourself as possible.
Using Facebook is voluntary, and if you decide to do so, it is CURRENTLY no more dangerous than living out a normal life. We exist every day trusting that the credit card companies, the merchants, the health insurance companies, the banks, the government, the ISPs, our bosses, and everyone else we come into contact with on any sort of contractual basis will hold your information sacred and not resell it or use it against you – which, ahem, they often do. The sad fact is that they own your data, and it is impossible to retract that permission. Contracts may include provisions for deletion of data or other such privacy measures, but there is no guarantee that anyone does it. As far as privacy goes, Facebook hasn’t overtly said that they will do anything that is any worse than what everyone else already does.
5) Better a sale we know about than a backdoor plugin we don’t.