On Dave Farber’s list, Brock Meeks pointed us to a delightful Facebook Smackdown. Brock says,
What do Facebook, the CIA and your magazine subscription list have in
common? Maybe more than you think…
Trust me, it’s worth the look.
And indeed it is worth looking at, along with Patrick Schitt’s contribution of the background documentation.
I found the “smackdown” a refreshing antidote to much recent discussion about young adults and their attitudes about privacy. Perhaps some of it is hyperbolic; anyone associated with the Internet back in the days when it was the Arpanet has similar ties. But let’s look at the larger issue.
Over the last year or so, there’s been a theme going around the media about how kids today are much more comfortable with personal information out on the net. There have been dramatic news stories about it and I have had the privilege of seeing a few panels at universities about that subject amused by the walking oxymorons — well-known privacy activists — who participate.
The continued democratization of personal information is not an unalloyed desirable thing, but it also a fact of life. At lunch yesterday, I snorted something about how if you can’t find the home address of anyone sitting at the table in less than five minutes, then your search-fu needs brushing up.
Many of those stories and discussions have had as an implicit or explicit theme that old people (those who got their first email address during, not after, the dot-com boom) can learn something from these young adults. However, young adults are well-known for risk-taking behavior. They get drunk, drive fast, take drugs, sleep around, put their hearing at risk, and do many other things that older people do not do (or don’t do anymore). The mainstream media has credulously swallowed the notion that not caring about privacy is youthful wisdom rather than youthful indiscretion.
Many young adults wake up one morning with a pounding headache, fuzz on their tongue, a wretched feeling in the gut that they’ll learn one day is acid reflux, the distressing feeling that they are not comfortable with the place nor manner in which they woke up, and the feeling that they may have done some things that it’s perhaps better that they don’t know they did. Over time, this leads to behavior modification.
When one is suffering from a hangover, one often says intemperate or hyperbolic things about that which got one in that state. Even if the Facebook Smackdown contains hyperbole, I view it as a Netizen Hangover.
Facebook has a privacy and information use policy that is skewed slightly to Facebook over its users. In a normal state of mind, one might respond to this with, “yeah, whatever” particularly if one is of an age that “yeah, whatever” is part of one’s active vocabulary. If one has the unpleasant feeling that one has made a fool of oneself in public, the response might be, “ZOMGWTFPWNED!” Facebook also has investment connections that could get either the two previous responses.
This hangover plots some points and draws lines between them. During a hangover, one might forget that just because one can draw a line between two points, one isn’t obligated to draw a line between them. Furthermore, when one does those little connect-the-dots puzzles, order is important; that’s why they put numbers by the points.
As one holds one’s coffee with both trembling hands while tending that hangover — Facebook can do pretty much anything they want with all the information in it, and there are few degrees of separation between Facebook and the parts of the government that want to find bad guys through data mining, the thought that Facebook might get you on the no-fly-list doesn’t sound unreasonable. It’s easy to wonder between sips if one’s internship will be in Gitmo. Are they mining Facebook to look for bad guys? Probably not. Could they? Sure.
Nonetheless, there are many lessons one learns as one gets older. Every generation learns something new that they have to carefully explain to their kids (“I’m not ashamed of what I did, but really, I recommend thinking twice or three times before doing what I did.”) A cavalier attitude to privacy may end up on that list sooner than we think.