Hands off our Facebook data

After an adventurous honeymoon with Facebook I now conduct relations in the missionary position – can’t remember the last time I added an App. I use Facebook to share pics and exchange the occasional pleasantry – events are handy, too, but that’s it.

Google and Facebook have both been touted as Personal Learning Environments, places which blend work and social lives. Like Yishay, Google’s my thing. I’d like to be more distributed but I’m not – I use Google for almost everything networked at the moment. I suppose if you are going to take part of your life online, there’s a case for keeping things with one organisation – at least you’ve got half a chance of keeping tabs on it. Some people are adamant that our only hope is to keep things distributed, though – although again with Open ID on the horizon (and that’s another initiative with privacy issues) maybe the difference between distributed and concentrated will disappear.

Anyway, OpenSocial is coming and Facebook CEO Zuckerberg must be anxious to raise some cash. He recently took the brazen step of allowing users’ data to be used to advertise the products they use to their friends. A series of sharp and painful tugs on Facebook’s lead by the privacy monitors is bound to follow. And hopefully some well-aimed and authoritative criticism will make everything alright as it did when CEO Zuckerberg bowed to pressure and added privacy settings last year.

I find Facebook, Google, Microsoft etc users’ attitude to privacy interesting. As a population it’s evident that we feel very secure in the tolerance and permissiveness of today’s liberal democracies. That’s a seriously wonderful thing and the intense indignation when Facebook reneges on privacy agreements – actual or assumed – might suggest that people recognise not to take it for granted. But at the same time there’s neglect which suggests our attitude to privacy is a mile wide and an inch deep – many of us happily trade away our privacy in return for goods and services. Loyalty cards, oyster cards, ISPs are all actively collecting data about us. In considering why we don’t mind Peter Fleischer (at a Google privacy event earlier this year) made an interesting point about norms – if everybody is letting it all hang out then it becomes acceptable to let it all hang out – maybe you even come under scrutiny for not letting it all hang out.

Fair enough, but then we must understand and take seriously that our online trail can tell anybody with access to it untold amounts about us, and that includes less benign governments than the one we have now. If Hitler or Stalin had inherited the networked data which exists now the clampdown would have been much quicker and much more thorough. You can’t always stop totalitarians coming to power, but you can avoid handing them their purge on a plate. But, as Bobbie Johnson pointed out (same event), people tend to underreact about data retention and abuse when the government’s doing it because “everybody hates the government anyway”. Something’s a bit wrong there… we have to feel as if we have a vested interest in keeping our privacies and liberties.

I’m not sure what Facebook’s recently-announced rival OpenSocial’s business model’s going to be but you can be pretty sure it will be based on our personal data. Time to start thinking seriously about where we want this to stop.

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