Picture a teen seated in front of his computer in his dorm one evening. Look closer, you can tell that he’s onto something, vicariously sifting through and downloading pictures posted by random strangers on unsecured servers. If you’re getting creeped out by the apparent breach of privacy here and the direction in which this seems to be going, we’ve actually only just begun.
In time, he gets exhausted by having to download each picture manually. So he improvises by writing a few scripts to automatically grab these pictures off the Internet. But what’s he planning to do with all these pictures? Let’s cut the story short because by now you’ve guessed who this teen is. The time was 2004 and the person is Mark Zuckerberg, the Founder, CEO, and President of Facebook – a social networking which now has over 750 million active users.
Ouch. Not a very comforting thought for anyone who loves the concept of privacy.
Facebook and its philosophy on privacy
Mark has openly proclaimed in the past that “the age of privacy is over”. Last year, when Mark was being interviewed by TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, this is what he had to say:
“A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built, doing a privacy change – doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.”
No one knows where Mark got his information about the loosening up of privacy being an emerging social norm, or whether it’s even backed by research or just thoughts in his mind. The point is, now more than ever, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to view Facebook as a trusted keeper of your personal data.
The warning signs are scattered all across the table
The Wall Street Journal did a story in 2010 where they mentioned how applications on Facebook were transmitting identifying user information to “dozens of advertising and Internet tracking companies”. If you’re wondering what this means for you, try to think back of all those seemingly harmless quizzes you took and the games that you played on Facebook, now picture the creator of such an application selling your personal information or the personal information of any other user who used their application to businesses which are willing to buy it for a price. Scary thought, isn’t it? Facebook did apologize to users and took corrective actions to stop this as the news went public – but that doesn’t help much when you have a reputation like Facebook has.
Moreover, this is not an isolated example. The newest debate is over Facebook using facial recognition technology to identify and tag people automatically, which means that you upload a photograph and Facebook will suggest a tag for the people in the photograph. It seems like a convenient little feature aimed at making life easier for the users. But it gets creepy when you think that somewhere, this huge database is being constantly updated with user information matched with their pictures. Of course, you can go to the Privacy settings in Facebook and disable this feature but fact remains that navigating and making sense of Facebook’s privacy settings is trickier than flying a UFO with no controls.
It’s a trust issue more than anything else
Mark’s lackluster disposition on user privacy since the beginning and the dogdy relationship that Facebook has with both users and media has not been helping their case much of late. This is the proverbial Achilles heel of Facebook, and quite possibly its downfall. Will it make amends in enough time to make its users stay? Going by their track record so far, we’re not betting on it. If you’re looking for privacy, you would be better off seeking another land.