Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Could Facebook become radioactive?

Facebook is ubiquitous, the operating system for modern life, with more than 1 billion members.

So far, people seem happy to trade off their privacy for the delights of the world's largest network.

Could that change?

People have been seduced into sharing an amazing amount of information about themselves via Facebook. A click to "Like" a post or a product seems such an innocent act. Sharing photos of a party, or an adventure, seems harmless. By the next day, you probably will have forgotten those clicks.

But Facebook never forgets.

Where you go, what you buy, who you know, what you like and dislike, who you voted for, whether you're gay or straight, whether you're religious or an atheist, whether you're a meat lover or a vegetarian, whether you live alone, where you work, where you've traveled, which organizations you belong to, whether you're poor or affluent, whether you're a gun owner, or a racist, or an illegal immigrant.

It's all there, and a whole lot more. Even when you are not posting explicit statements about such things, they can be deduced from comments, photos, friendships, and so on, not only on your own page but on those of your friends, too. All of that can, of course, be aggregated into a profile of you.

People are watching.

Some are just interested in selling you something. They're looking for clues to help target their ads more accurately. Although a bit spooky, this is relatively benign, maybe even desirable if it helps you find a product or service you need.

But some of those people work for police departments, insurance companies, prospective and current employers, government agencies, and others who can affect your life in more consequential ways.

As I mentioned in a recent post, the New York City police are attempting to prevent youth from leading a life of crime by making them "radioactive." The detectives use Facebook, and other social media, to learn about these teenagers. Then they create a dummy Facebook page with a fake profile of an attractive teenage girl, and bait the young men with “friend requests” to get around privacy settings. The goal is that they become "alienated" by those who would recruit them into gangs.

Surreptitious tactics used in a good cause, but how would you feel if similar tactics brought you to the attention of the authorities as they were investigating someone you had "friended?" Perhaps you just happened to be in a group photo that also included this person, or had been at the same party, or had happened to meet them while traveling, and now the police are scrutinizing everything you ever posted online? Things you wrote in jest may now be interpreted as "suspicious," even "dangerous."

Improbable? Perhaps.

Then consider that an insurance company may check you out on Facebook to see whether you have health problems, or engage in risky activities. If you have filed a claim for long term disability due to a car accident, they'll be looking to see whether you are out jogging or kayaking.

A prospective employer will take a look at your Facebook page to see who is in your network, what you're doing, and what you're thinking, that makes you a suitable, or unsuitable, candidate.

Did you mention that you and your family will be away for two weeks on a cruise? Did all of your Facebook "friends" wish you bon voyage? A perfect time for a burglar to visit your home.

What might an identity thief or a stalker learn about you, or your children, from Facebook?

Once you have "friended" someone, you are part of an exponentially expanding network that includes their friends, their friends' friends, and so on, most of which is largely beyond your control.

Now consider that other databases, maintained offline by governments, banks, credit card companies, and others, have lots of information about you. If you come under suspicion, despite being completely innocent, some of those databases will be searched, too, and when authorities are asking for information about you, that raises a red flag. If there's a police cruiser in your neighbour's driveway, your curiosity is piqued, isn't it? Same thing here, but with much greater consequences.

It's not just Facebook, it's Big Data. But Facebook is the easy place to start investigating, because it's easily accessible and everybody uses it.

Amazing technology, using powerful computers, is being developed to make this kind of thing possible. They can deal with exabytes of information, sifting it in seconds to suggest connections that may be further investigated. Exabyte is a term meaning "more data than you an possibly comprehend."

There is a profitable market in collecting and reselling Personally Identifiable Information (PII). PII is industry jargon for information that alone, or in combination with other information, can identify you, locate you, and contact you.

So, here's my question.

May we expect that when the mainstream media eventually latches onto this, and the headlines are full of regular folks who have been robbed, raped, killed, denied insurance, deported, arrested, sued, and fired, due to their use of Facebook, will it become like Chernobyl --- something that was once useful and valued, but that got out of control, caused massive damage, and was forever abandoned?


  1. Evidence gleaned from Facebook and other social media sites is already commonly used against the people who posted it in court cases involving divorce, personal injury claims, criminal charges, etc. For example, FB was used to convict a bigamist who had unwisely posted photos of his "second marriage." Many personal injury claims have been torpedoed by FB photos of the injured person out on the town or on holidays having fun instead of being at home in pain, as claimed.

    1. You're right, Debra, I've read these reports, too. People seem to be very naive, don't they?

      It is common practice now for HR people to do online checks on job candidates, but people continue to post information that is likely to ruin their chances of employment.

      I guess it's true that you can't fix stupid.

  2. I wonder if the end justifies the means. I would like our insurance rates to go down, but I'm not sure if spying on people on fb is right. On the other hand I suppose spying is the way they've been caught in the past, fb just makes it easier. But the potential for abuse is so great. Fb is like the powerful god Janus - 2 faced. Maybe the problem is that we don't have the proper respect for it. Great post, Doug.

  3. I'm always stunned by the things that people share on Facebook, particularly information about being away on vacation. Some people I know often announce that they'll be gone for the day, where they'll be and from what time to what time they'll be there. A clear invitation to a burglar with details about the best time to stop by the house without a problem. Others post photos of their belongings, their homes, things inside their homes, etc. So, in addition to the best time to stop by the house, a burglar also has an itemized list of items worth stopping by for. Sharing way too much information about yourself is not a good thing to do. Keep in touch with friends around the world. But keep it simple. For more private matters, share it face to face.