Can We Trust Facebook?

I’ve heard three stories lately that make me worry about Facebook.  First, my friend Sutton from work posted a message to Facebook about diet pills.  This threw me for a loop because Sutton is on the skinny side but since I’m on the fat side I read the message with interest.  I asked him about it and he said somebody had hacked his account, and it started with a woman he knew that was also hacked sending the same messages. 

Then another friend at work, Joe, told me how people called his wife’s parents pretending to be their daughter stranded on road trip and not being able to get ahold of Joe and thus calling her grandparents wanting them to wire money.  The scammers had all kinds of interesting granddaughter and grandparent details to fool the old people.  The old people just called Joe.

When I told these stories to my wife she told me about a circle of her friends who were getting messages on Facebook from a dead woman they hand known.  They didn’t know if the hackers broke into Rachel’s account before or after she died, but they got messages from Rachel long after she passed – rather eerie.

Sutton and Joe cancelled their Facebook accounts.

I would have quit Facebook long ago because I don’t really use it, except that I’ve discovered it’s a way to keep tabs on friends, family and acquaintances.  I was going to quit because I don’t do anything I feel like posting about.  Being on Facebook makes me feel old and boring because all friends are out doing stuff and I’m not.  However, I have to admit Facebook is a good way to keep up with people.  As a social network it works, maybe it’s far from perfect, but it’s worth having an account. 

People I would have quit thinking about years ago stay alive in my mind because of Facebook.

That still leaves the question: Can We Trust Facebook?

Just before Sutton was hacked, he recommended Pinterest.com, an online pinboard, whatever that might be.  He assured me it was fun and I should try it.  So I went to Pinterest and requested an invite.  When the email came and I clicked on the invite I was told to register with either my Facebook or Twitter account.  I was leery of this, but I clicked on signing in with Facebook and I was given a warning about how many rights I would be giving Pinterest and that scared me, so I closed the window.

I wrote Pinterest about this and they said they did this to make it easy to find your friends to share the pinboards.  Now there’s a certain logic in this.  Words with Friends and Spotify also want me to log in with my Facebook credentials.  All these companies are hoping to ride the coattails of social networking.  But it also solves another problem for them – they don’t have to maintain their own login system and manage accounts.

This brings us to question number two: Can We Trust Other Companies with Our Facebook Account?

Social networking is a fantastic idea, but is it being implementing safely?  There are always stories on the news about the dangers of Facebook with warnings about what kinds of personal information not to post on the site.  And Facebook has introduced more and more security features, but because Facebook wants to make billions it seeks all kinds of business partners and ways to integrate our personal lives into their businesses.

Facebook is now seen as a highway to nearly a billion customers so 21st century entrepreneurs are gold rushing to create apps that have symbiotic relationships with Facebook.

Which makes me ask:  How Far Will You Weave Your Life Into the Social Network?

What Facebook has become is a login system to the Internet.  When the internet first started people could be anonymous, but over time sites that makes billions have found endless ways to track us.  Facebook is a pub where everyone can know your name.

And don’t get me wrong, there’s a certain logic of networking people together.  What if all amateur genealogists were on Facebook and Ancestry.com was integrated into Facebook?  It could easily link you to all your living relatives all over the world, and let you follow various paths of maternal and paternal inheritance.  What if you wanted to remember everyone in your 6th grade class from 1962?  If they were all on Facebook and the right information was in the database, you could have an instant class reunion.  Facebook has the potential to change society significantly.

Social networking is extremely powerful.  There’s a reason why hundreds of millions of people flock to Facebook.  But can we trust it?  I don’t think so.  Should we abandon it?  No, we shouldn’t do that either.

However there is a new concept on the net called Infosuicide where you leave the internet and try to erase all references to themselves.  I don’t know if this will become a trend, but some people are being turned off by losing their anonymity.  If the Facebook trend continues true privacy will shrink.

What we need is a science of social networking.  We also need laws and etiquettes to match this knowledge.  We need tight controls to how our personal information is monitored.  Our identities need firewalls to protect them, so we can have control over what aspects of our lives are public, or to what degree they are made public.

I think it needs to start by allowing us to control our various social relationships.  Think about it.  We know things about ourselves we’d never tell anyone, but everything else we’d be willing to share with various kinds of people we know depending on the relationship.  I think those breakdown something like this:

  • Spouse/lover
  • Friends
  • Close relatives
  • Close work relationships
  • Acquaintances
  • Game associates
  • Distant relatives
  • Distant work relationships
  • Various level of public networks

Once you start using Facebook for all kinds of social networks you have to divide them into all kinds of categories.  Would you want to let your doctors, dentist, optometrist, plumber, electrician to post reminders and schedules to your Facebook account?  You would if you got up everyone morning and checked Facebook faithfully.  If you start thinking of Facebook as a super Outlook calendar and contact program you would.

I’m not sure most people realize the direction Facebook is taking.  They are letting Facebook grow at its pace and not theirs.  I know people that join Facebook and quit and go back and quit and go back because its so tempting.  Many people don’t want Facebook to take over their lives but as more of their family and friends join Facebook the harder it becomes to avoid it without seeming like a misanthrope.

We can’t trust Facebook one iota, but we do.  Why?  Because it’s too good of an idea of pass up.  This week I got a round robin email from my cousins.  My cousin Jane wrote the first email to another cousin and gave them a list of who to forward the email to next, and I was last with the instructions to return it to Jane.  She then resent it to everyone.  When I saw that I wondered why everyone just didn’t join Facebook.

I don’t read Facebook regularly but I should.  If I did I would know more about my family and friends.  And that brings up another question about Facebook:  Are we obligated to social network?  I’m a loner and I’m extremely selfish with my time, but I feel there is an social obligation.  I don’t know to what degree we should feel obligated to network with the people we know, but I think there’s enough of an obligation that Facebook should exist and be required to legally meet security obligations.  In other words I think we need to make Facebook into something we can trust.  Hell, it’s a lot easier to use than making phone calls and writing letters.  I would make a case that Facebook is the minimum social obligation.

JWH – 10/8/11

6 thoughts on “Can We Trust Facebook?”

  1. I also have a facebook account, but don’t use it because of privacy concerns. I haven’t logg on in over 9 months. In the past I often thought social networks needed some sort of grouping to define relationship types so you don’t have to share every single thing with everyone you know. But that brings up a tricky thing where you explicitly tell people how much you like/trust them. We don’t tend to do this in real life, except during high school. I think the guy who fixed a crack in my windshield might not think anything weird if I accepted his “business-relationship” request and we shared limited info. But would my cousin or workmate appreciate it if instead of accepting a friend request I offered a more limited relationship? Some people would be offended by that downgrade.

    I know some people have different usernames to give to different classes of friends, but that gets complicated. You’d have to post differently about events to different groups, logging in/out, etc….. Maybe someone has a meta-account application for facebook that can handle that sort of thing. I think google+ has that built-in.

    But you cannot trust facebook or google+. The main reason facebook has triumphed is because it was never conceived as a social network. It was designed to be a way to get to people to willingly give information about themselves that facebook could sell to advertisers. Google for all its purported niceness (linux friendly, pays its workers well, etc) is the ultimate internet advertiser. Meaning they sell you to advertisers, you are not their customer. This leads these companies to inherently not care about user privacy. Your privacy hurts their bottom line.

    Geocities, tripod, and the other early social networks failed because they focused on trying to sell the eyeballs of their users. By giving people a place to broadcast to others, they hoped to attract click-throughs. But that didn’t generate enough income. Some systems had messaging, but they treated it like email. When you login to an email server you don’t expect the administrator to be reading your email. But everything you post on facebook, you allow them access to. That raw data of what people are doing and saying is valuable. That’s why people heard of facebook being worth billions long before ever personally having a facebook account.

    When Zuckerberg began pitching his company’s product, the business class immediately saw the value of being able to sift through everything hundreds of thousands of people do or say online. Nobody pitching something limited like Anglefire to VC investors ever got that level of interest. The history of facebook is one privacy violation after another. I’d bet most people first heard about facebook because of one of those controversies being reported via TV. Boycott Wall Street!

    1. Anything you post online should be innocuous info, but the power of information mining is the cross-referencing of data. Facebook is designed to identify its users. The users hand over a lot of personal data:schools, jobs, etc in the name of finding people you might have once known but lost touch with (maybe there was a reason you lost touch with them, I say move on, don’t wallow in your past). 3rd party sites like using facebook credentials because that helps destroy anonymity. Anonymity is a threat to security all the internet pundits expound. In the past the frontier allowed people who screwed up to start over. Anonymity is a powerful source of freedom. Now you can screw up at age 13 and not be able to escape it. Ask any kid who in the last few years got caught building a pipe-bomb (Homeland Security new-speak for what used to be known as an M-80). As a people we seem to have utterly failed to understand Benjamin Franklin’s admonition against trading freedom for security. The last 40 years have shown we have neither.

      Facebook is great for advertisers because it isn’t just crawling the blogosphere and chatboards for random commentary, but they digest that sort of obviously public information plus messages and other data you expect would be kept private, and it is all cross-referenced with socioeconomic data, all the friend/like/follow relationships, who’s ignored or blocked. The data they get is that granular. Its not just about convincing you Budweiser is the king beers, or whether GE brings great things to life or not, but advertising and its ability to manipulate our fears means we’ve subsidized corn production for 60 years (and so 90% of food products have it as an ingredient), have price controls for sugar, that businesses can import products made by slave labor, and built support for the invasion of Iraq. The same advertising data flows to Xing/Blackwater, FreedomWorks and Crossroads GPS. Boycott Wall Street!

      1. I think we’re going to have to live with that level of data mining. We just need to make laws that regulate it properly. I don’t mind anonymous data mining – it does reveal a lot about our society. And I don’t even mind a certain amount of targeted advertising. If I’m going to look at ads I’d rather see ones I can relate to.

  2. I doubt we can trust any online site. They all eventually get hacked in one way or another. I’ve only been on Twitter for a few months and my account got hacked recently, which sent hacking emails to everyone who followed me that, if they clicked on the message, caused their account to be hacked. Fun! Things like that annoy me because I know it is just people out there being jerks.

    I try not to worry too much about the trust issues because I don’t keep anything I’m all that concerned about on Facebook or Twitter. If someone hacked it and sent nasty or harmful stuff to family and friends I wouldn’t be happy, but at least they aren’t going to be getting my bank account info or anything else from the site. Still, I don’t like how seemingly unconcerned the creators of these sites are about our privacy, etc.

    I’ve noticed lately that some people have converted their blogs to sites that won’t allow you to comment unless either you use your Facebook or Twitter account or you register for an account on that site. The last thing I want are more accounts. But I hadn’t even thought about the implications of logging in on those sites with FB or Twitter. You point out some worrisome things about doing so.

    1. But we’re in the early stages of new technology. We need to work out the bugs and develop the proper laws. I think with social networking we’re not even at the Model T stage yet. We’re at the stage where they were arguing the virtues of AC versus DC. Right now Facebook is making all the decisions. I think it needs to be regulated like food or medicine.

  3. Through laws we can have whatever level of data sharing we want. But the 1% don’t want laws restricting their access to us and our data. It makes them money, anything that makes the 1% money is made legal by our government no matter how immoral or dangerous it is. our government is about making rich people richer and turning Citizens into Consumers.

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