Thursday, September 9, 2010

Should You Be Worried About Privacy on Facebook?

Social networking sites are a lot of fun, but should you be worried about putting personal information on your facebook page?  To some extent, yes, but don't get paranoid.  There is not much someone can do with your name, birth-date, and pictures of you shitfaced at the office Christmas party.

Privacy - it seems to be a big buzzword these days.  "Privacy Rights Advocates" are constantly quoted as decrying this or that social trend or law or action by the government or industry.  Should you be worried about your privacy?  For the most part, I think the answer is NO.

Traditionally, you had an expectation of privacy only in your own home and aspects of your personal life.  If you were walking down the street, in full view of the public, the fact that you exist in time and space and what you look like were not matters of privacy, but public knowledge.  In other words, you can't go outside, onto public roads or to public places and expect that to be a private matter.

And yet, many of these self-appointed "Privacy Rights Advocates" argue that such information is private.  Google Earth, among others, has made it possible for you to scan nearly all the major streets of the world and look at a "street view" which may include pictures of people.  In some instances, their cameras captured pictures of people doing embarrassing things - breaking into houses, going into a porno store, holding hands with a woman not their wife - that sort of thing.  Google backed down on this, and wrote a script that looked for faces and blurred them out.  But then "Privacy Rights Advocates" insisted that license plate numbers be obscured as well.

It seems we are paranoid about privacy.  Here's a clue.  If you don't want someone to see you going into the porno, don't go.  Or don't be embarrassed about it.  It's just sex.  Everyone does it - if they're lucky.

Facebook presents some interesting challenges.  People put all sorts of information on these sites, both in their "profile" and in their photos, as well as their wall comments.  Some folks are alarmed that this information may be seen by members of the public.  Others warn that potential employers may see incriminating information.

I suppose that is all true, but on the other hand, what are you ashamed of?  As you can see from my blog, my life is pretty much an open book.  I'm not ashamed of much in my past, as sordid as it is.  You know why?  Because almost everyone Else's life is about the same.  You might pretend to be an all-important big-shot attorney, who is serious all the time and writes lengthy articles on obscure legal matters.  But I saw you at the company party getting bashed and making an awkward pass at your secretary.  Hey, don't sweat it - everyone does stupid things - its part of being human.  Pretending we don't is also part of being human.

So an employer who won't hire you because your facebook page exposes you as - well just an average schmuck like the rest of us - well, that's stupid on their part.  And yet, in this day and age, where we are all supposed to be so "liberated" about everything, people are expected to "resign" from their jobs at the first hint of "indiscretion" or some sordid event from their past.  Thank God I'm self-employed - and close to retirement!  The hypocrisy of today's society stinks big time.

What can people find out about you on facebook?  And how can they find it?  Well, the former is easy - pretty much everything you put on your facebook page, unless you increase your "privacy settings" so no one other than "friends" can see it, is available for anyone to see.  How can they find information?  It is pretty easy to do - although specifically finding YOU might be hard to do, unless you have an unusual name.

Next time you are on facebook, type someone's name in the search bar.  Any name, including "John Smith".  Chances are, a number of names will appear.  If you click on one, it will send you to that person's facebook page.  If they have not been a spoilsport and set their privacy settings high, you can see their information, wall writings, and photos.  It is an interesting peek into a stranger's life.

And from that listing, you can "spelunk" to other listings, by checking out who their "friends" are and then checking out their page.  The process is endless.  One listing leads to another, and another.  But since you don't know any of these people, the interest level drops quickly.  Also - and this is really depressing - everyone's facebook page is pretty much the same.  Photos of people with their dogs or kids, and basically the same writing on their "walls".  We'd all like to think we are unique individuals, but we aren't.

To find your specific listing, it may be harder, particularly if your name is John Smith.  There are so many entries that it would be hard to find you, without wading through thousands.  But if your name is unique, it may be easier to find - provided the person didn't add their middle name (or delete it) or get married and no longer have their "maiden" name - etc.

Sometimes, you can find someone by looking for a friend of theirs with a unique name.  A friend of mine wanted to track down a college roommate, but his name was like "John Brown" - kind of hard to do!  But his best friend was named Avery Wojohowictz, and that was a much easier name to get a "hit" on.  We found Avery and then looked at his "friends" list, and then found "John Brown" on that list.  Bingo!  This is how we "spelunk" the facebook database.

If someone has been a spoilsport and set their privacy settings "high" but left their "friend" list available, sometimes you can find out a lot about them by going to the friend's page and looking for wall postings from your target of interest.  Also, friends might "tag" your target in a photo or the like.  You'd be surprised what you can learn about people from what they post to other people's walls.

Again, this seems sneaky and devious, but like juicy gossip, it is a whole lot of fun, in a sick sort of way.  But one does tire of it quickly, as the information is often bland and uninteresting.  Most people put up a mask on facebook (sorry about the pun) - a facade of what they would like to project to the world.  Very few people are earnest and sincere, except, perhaps at times, by accident.

So people can find you on facebook, in many cases, and can find out a lot about you, even if you set your privacy settings to "high".  But the point of facebook is to interact with others - so making yourself unavailable on facebook sort of defeats the purpose of the site.  If you don't want people to find you, don't go on facebook.

But is there a risk from someone seeing all your facebook information?  Well, in my opinion, not really.  The idea that you will be the victim of "identity theft" because someone knows your name is pretty silly.  And photos of you on your rafting trip won't allow them to take out a loan in your name.  Even your phone number isn't enough to put you at risk - think about it, this is published information in the phone book!

So what is the big deal?  People are paranoid, and FEAR sells!  Get people all skeered and they will do or buy anything.  Keep the cattle nervous - it keeps them malleable.

For example, it always cracks me up when people put a picture of themselves on the Internet and they fuzz out the number on their license plate.  When I ask them why, they say "for privacy concerns - so someone doesn't steal my identity!"

Imagine this conversation down at the Bank:

ME:  "Hi, I'd like to open a credit card account.  I don't know my own social security number, have any identification on me, or even know my driver's license number.  But I do have the number on the license plate from my car!  Is that enough to get a credit card?"

BANK:  "Go away, please."

You get the point.  Without your Social Security number, some form of ID and other information, it would be hard to "steal" your identity.  Even with this information, it is hard to do, and as I have explained time and time again, the incidence of real stranger-based "identity theft" that is not mere credit card fraud, is remarkably infrequent.  And you are not liable for loans taken out by others in your name.  Any idiot who loans money to the wrong person is at fault - not you.

That being said, a social networking site COULD be useful information for someone who ALREADY has identifying information about you.  For example, if you have genealogy information on your website, your Mother's Maiden Name might be useful data for someone who already has your Social Security number.

But all that being said, most of the "data" you put on facebook is either stuff you can find in the telephone book, or stuff no one cares about  - pictures of you and your dog on the beach.

There is one aspect of facebook data that might be a wee bit disturbing, and that is pictures of people - including children - can be seen by anyone who surfs facebook.  Before you put up pictures of your kids at the pool, you might want to set your privacy settings to "friends only" lest some pedophile be looking at them.

But frankly, that's the only thing I can think of to worry about on facebook.  If you feel "violated" because some stranger saw pictures of you on the beach with your dog, maybe you need to re-think your life and values.  After all, when you were on the beach, chances are 20-30 people saw you there in person.  What's the difference?  I fail to see it.

The idea that strangers are cruising your facebook page and checking out your data and looking at your pictures is a bit creepy.

But being paranoid about someone seeing pictures of you doing things in public, or reading information about you that is in the phone book - that is creepier, in my opinion.

There are other issues, of course, but only of concern to deceitful people and liars.  A friend who is  a Real Estate agent cautioned me not to say anything on facebook about the sale of our home.  My house had a leaky pipe, which I had mentioned on facebook.  But of course, being stupidly honest as I am, I had completely disclosed this to the buyer well in advance, so they knew about it.  But others might not be so honest, and brag about how they "put one over" on someone - only later to find out that the someone had read their facebook page.

But again, this only affects deceitful people, and frankly, I think such people get what they deserve.  Secrecy in your life rarely serves any useful purpose. Being an information hoarder or unnecessarily close-to-the-vest to create an air of secrecy about you, are hallmarks of difficult people.  If you are truthful, open, and honest, you never  have to worry about getting caught in a lie.  It is that simple.

So, get over this "privacy" thing!  Secrecy and closed doors have never worked to anyone's advantage, historically.  If you are embarrassed about the things you do in "private" then ask yourself why you are living a "double life".

After all, in this day and age, almost anything goes, it seems.....