Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Trusting Privacy

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...Image via CrunchBase

Company starts service. People like the service. People use the privacy and filtering part of the service. Company wakes up to huge hosting and bandwidth bills. People get caught up in the service and post their multi-faceted lives with different privacy levels and filters to the service. Company realizes their real asset is all their data, and wants to mine it. Company changes Terms Of Privacy. Nobody notices until they do notice it.

And suddenly people are very very scared when they realize their lives and reputations are in the hands of, well, no longer four plucky guys in a garage who want to do The Right Thing, but god knows who where with what capital, who want a return and have a lot of bills to pay and are sitting on your very marketable private life.

I am not talking about Facebook here. I am talking about LiveJournal, a social blogging system that had privacy and filtering groups baked in. Compared toFacebook, LiveJournal is an intensely geeky service that makes it difficult to put up media, but hey, us geeky and computer-literate people live for this and went and did it. And after many a sale and tribulation, we now all have to deal with the fact that the content we have been making, our gossips, our rants, our career-ending descriptions of practical jokes on our bosses, safely hidden behind privacy walls since the millenium turned, are on systems owned now by a bunch of people in Russia nobody really knows.

Facebook is still in the same hands, but has indeed the same problem of very high bills, and the fact that the current revenue models are not quite paying the bills, or not enough according to the people with capital. And now an even larger group of people -- 1/3 of Canada has a Facebook profile if the numbers are to be believed, and that is just one country -- is suddenly confronted with that their private lives may, or have, become over-public, way beyond intended.

Some concerns are overblown like the cooperation with Yelp and news-sites; Facebook is not giving your Facebook data to Yelp to make your social Yelp page, the Yelp page is instead asking Facebook to fill certain blocks of it in. But, even though it is Facebook putting your social data inside the Yelp page, it says in the top bar of your browser so it looks like Yelp knows everything you did on Facebook, which was not the idea. This is simply a breakdown of the mental model users have of how a web page is built up. However, Facebook is also leaking your data through your friends' lousy privacy settings left and right, and is starting to have a spam and rogue applications problem, and is making it really opaque how to manage who sees what of what you make. Right now LiveJournal's intricate privacy groups are actually easier to track, and that is saying something. Facebook is having real problems.

Fundamentally, the problem is that your stuff is on other people's machines. I have said it before: that's a problem if you want to keep it private. There really isn't that much of a penalty for a company to break their Terms Of Service where they say they will keep your stuff private for you and then mine or publicize it anyway -- especially since those TOS always say they can choose to change unilaterally, and you never read them before you clicked OK anyway. Not for Facebook, not for the company backing up your text messages, not for the picture hosting site you use.

So, run from Facebook? Personally, I actually can't. The tech leaders who are being reported having done so are indeed at the level that they get reported about. Me, I do not get reported about, so without a Facebook profile, employers start wondering if I really do do social media, and since Facebook isn't passé, how effective I could be in crafting electronic strategies that include the site if I am not on it. I do lock that profile down, though, to only show what I would want an employer looking for me to see. As in, no actual content, just the cursory information.

And what about the privacy concerns? Well, done is done. We have to assume Facebook may not pull back from the brink. But it is still a fun service to stay available to your friends and see your pics and their pics and read what they are doing now. Just don't put something on there you really do not want anyone to know. Vacation pics, sure. Vacation pics of you puking, no. Treat it as a supermarket community billboard; yes it has notes that leak privacy like you have a plant for sale and like to listen to 60s Soul Records and who wants to trade? But those are no big deal. You can still follow your favorite artists and post about your BBQ. Just realize that telling the world your boss is an asshole is just not to be done over status updates anymore, unless it is a temp job and you will be gone at some point.

The Internet is generally terrible at keeping secrets. Always has been. Always will be. Especially secrets that can be found by combining little pieces together, because the Internet is really good at that. Take the pieces of your life that are not public and put them somewhere else, if you must put them on the Internet at all, with no links like names or aliases pointing back to your public you.

And as time goes by, and people actually do not do this because only geeks really understand the danger, and we all become more and more used to people making everything public, we will all gain. We will all realize people have multiple facets to their lives, and we will get used to all knowing too much about each other. And like people packed in London public transport during rush-hour, we will develop the ability to just not look and not acknowledge each other, as necessary to stay sane and work together.

And that's great. Because keeping track of whom you said what to really is too much work.