Privacy and the Internet: Is Facebook evil?

For several of my classes, I open Facebook groups so that my students can exchange online. In some instances, it has worked great. Facebook tends to do a better job than school-provided posting boards. A small minority of students have taken offense to my practice for privacy reasons. It is fine: I would never require students to use Facebook. But I still think that some of these students might be misguided about what privacy is.

First, we must recognize that it is very hard to be anonymous these days. Your smartphone can be tracked. You can be identified from the sites you browse. There are cameras everywhere. Employers record which sites you visit, which email you send or receive.

However, it is hardly new. A few years back, I lived deep in the country. At some point, my car got stuck in the mud. A nice fellow passed us by and came to help us. When he was done, he asked about my wife’s pregnancy. My wife did not show yet… and we never talked with this man, but he still knew all about us. This is how our ancestors lived. If you did something interesting or wrong, word got around. It is only when villages became towns and cities that we stopped caring about our neighbours. Mostly, this happened during the last century. For thousands of years, we lived in small communities where everybody knew everything about everyone. You could not cheat on your wife without all of the village to know within weeks.

Some people love to hate Google or Facebook for all the information they gather. It seems very invasive. It seems like a violation of our privacy. Of course, compared to what happens in a small village, Google servers are much more powerful. If you sleep with the wrong person, all the village might know the next day… with Google, the wrong person could upload a video of your night for millions to see.

However, the fact that privacy violation can be more damaging today does not change what privacy is and isn’t.

I consider myself a sophisticated computer user. I could find ways to make it hard for the power-that-be to track me. Yet I am not concerned enough to bother. In fact, I suspect that most computer scientists and software programmers make no attempt to hide on the web.

Why is that?

It is not that they don’t value their privacy. Rather, it is because they recognize that there is a difference between invisibility and privacy. Remaining invisible is hard work and ultimately not what most people want. Very few people want to invisible to strangers.

Intent is key. When I walk downtown, people see me. They see what I buy and when I buy it. There are cameras recording me. Yet I feel at ease. However, if someone followed me and recorded what I did, I would feel uneasy.

Hence, if web servers record my HTTP request, there is no harm done. Sure enough, if someone has a good reason to, they can then trace back what actions and possibly hold it against me. But being observed, by itself, is fair game. In this sense, I am not overly worried about Google and Facebook, or my government. Collecting the information is not, by itself, cause for worry.

Of course, people could use the trace I leave online to harm me somehow. But this record of my online activities is not, by itself, a violation of my privacy.

People have accused Facebook of privacy violations. I’m sure it has happened. For example, maybe some Facebook engineer who wanted to go out with a woman decided to track and gather all information on this woman. This is creepy and should not been allowed. I’m hoping that such a woman could sue for damages and win.

In general, however, the people behind Google and Facebook do not set out to violate your privacy. As a side product of their work, some people might have an easier time violating your privacy, but that’s not the same. Rather it’s like saying that power tools make murder easier. Though they do, that is not their intent.

If you are going to stay away from Facebook for privacy fears, you should probably learn to always pay cash, do away with point cards, avoid cell phones and never use the web. As a student, it might be more profitable to use some of these technologies, but in a way that minimizes the harm people could do to you if they set out to violate your privacy. You should also be aware that even if you stay away from Facebook, YouTube and credit cards, people can use online technologies to harm you. Some of the most severe privacy cases I can recall had to do with people who did not use Facebook or YouTube. The genie is out of the bottle: you simply cannot wish these technologies away. They can cause harm to you no matter what. Closing down Facebook would not help.

Update: Google and Microsoft are currently suing the American government for the right to share with their users more information about how their sensitive information is being used. Facebook is similarly trying to share the number of government requests it receives from the government. In other words, corporations view privacy breaches as bad for their business. Facebook and Google have no financial incentive to creep out their users.

Daniel Lemire, "Privacy and the Internet: Is Facebook evil?," in Daniel Lemire's blog, August 9, 2013.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

17 thoughts on “Privacy and the Internet: Is Facebook evil?”

  1. Interesting. I’m curious whether student privacy laws prevent the use of Facebook as a discussion board. I’ve actually been told strictly not to even use non-university resources for any course related stuff. Of course, that was in relation to the grading, but that also included student-teacher communications.

    Another peril of using Facebook for courses is that the material will be out there forever … it’s facebook’s decision, not the course teachers (I mean, even if you delete some stuff, you don’t know where they are copied, cached, retained etc.). That doesn’t happen in a course system under your control.

    But I do agree that the age of privacy is virtually over :(, though social networks have also given rise to anonymous bullying and online harassment … another side of the coin.

  2. When you transgress in a tight-knit village, the gossipers know you as a person. They know you did wrong, but also the right you did before that. And in six months they might still joke about what you did, but it’s old news.

    With the internet, your sins are broadcast without any indication that you’re an actualized human being. And if the transgression is notable, there will constantly be new people learning for the first time what you did. Every job search is accompanied not be a dim recollection of that youthful slipup, but by a completely new revelation to the prospective employer when they google your name.

    Your example about walking down the street is similiar: I’d actually describe that, sans cameras, as closer to invisible. The next day I could wander that street with your photo, asking if you passed and what you did and where you visited, and at best I might get fragmentary “I think I walked by somebody who looked like him…” Contrast that with showing up with your photo and being handed a dossier with exactly where you walked, what you purchased, what other dates in the past 5 years you travelled this street. There’s a monumental difference between fallible, distractable human memory and comprehensive storage of your life’s minutia.

    As you say, the genie’s out of the bottle. This is the world we live in. But simply equating the internet with a village, with our data trails as wandering anonymously through a city misses that this is a change in kind, not just degree. It may be that it isn’t worth worrying about online privacy, or the endless data we leave in our wake, but that has to be because we decide it’s not worth worrying about, not because we think it’s the same as things were before. This is something fundamentally new and different, not just a minor variation on life 500 years ago.

  3. Very nice article. Yeah if some engineers from those companies want to access private data, they can do it though that is illegal. But without their service now a days its tough to live.

  4. @Ragib Hasan

    Grades are private information that I never share.

    I don’t even use email to send grades. I *only* store student grades on university servers. I don’t even have a copy on my laptop. I couldn’t tell what grades a student got without access to the university servers.

    It is not just a legal issue however. I think that it is generally harmful for students to spend too much time worrying about what grades their friends got.

  5. But it’s cumulative, right?

    Every service you put data into is ANOTHER point which might leak. The more services you use, the higher the risk.

    So it’s not right to say : “leaving service X won’t increase your privacy”. All other things being equal, of course it will.

  6. Great. When I completed my Masters in May 2012 I too did online collaboration through social networks with my guide even, as our institute’s intranet lacked portal for the same owing to poor network administration. Most connections reciprocated the good-will & trust I showed personally. Ships are meant to set sail, so I added acquaintances first, then whoever was apprehensive of privacy had to be removed. Those (extremist) who absolutely failed to grasp personal trust & mistook transparency for privacy violation had to be blocked. Considering how extroverted these people are, I was amused why they felt privacy violation. As a computer engineering professional, I prefer when my online provenance reflects my offline human self rather than God-like perfection. So if you belong to some far-off geographic locale & we’ve to connect as technology professionals or some such context, then I am more alive than life-less 3rd party letter announcing meeting amongst us, making our interactions reasonably meaningful. Welcome to the global village. This way if fortune arranges an in-person encounter then it causes lesser apprehension leading to stress. Online presence along-with mistakes suited to humans is more polite than unrealistically polished resumes & so forth. Its like being humble enough to say I’m fallible yet as team players we might fulfill something remarkable. If anyone’s withholding private stuff online then it must be securely withheld offline first.

  7. I don’t use Facebook much because I kind of don’t want to hear about the daily activities of everyone I know. Using it for technical discussions is probably the best use of it.

  8. I think that this is a great discussion and most especially relevant to the times. In terms of the point that content is forever on the Internet it is also forever in the time before the Internet: We call it history, legend and myth and there are good things, bad things, and the in between.

    The Good – The signing of the Declaration of Independence
    The Bad – Nero fiddling while Rome burns
    The In Between – Marie Curie’s discoveries

    What I believe the delta to be now is the speed an unaltered event can be distributed around the world without the filtering of history, community and more generally society. So in this case our global community is really in the middle of absorbing a new definition of privacy, not absorbing events and actions that are applied to the old definition of privacy.

    I think that all of this discussion is great and needs to be had as we adjust globally.

  9. “However, the fact that privacy violation can be more damaging today does not change what privacy is and isn’t.”

    I disagree with this statement completely. Privacy is a finely tuned social contract that has been thrown dramatically out of balance by the internet. If you change one part of the equation (e.g. the typical damage done by a privacy violation), you change how privacy functions in society in an important way. I happen to be reading Lawrence Lessig’s “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace” right now, which has some interesting discussion on the topic.

    I am not saying that Facebook is evil or that we should aim for invisibility on the internet. However, I think we have a lot of work to do in reestablishing a well-balanced notion of privacy in modern internet’d culture.

  10. Many Facebook privacy issues that have been in the media in the past few years have been about self-inflicted wounds – the part-time worker worker that fakes illness so he can go to the beach, and then posts his photos on his Facebook page so his boss sees them. That kind of thing. People have learned about that though, for the most part.

    With their IPO being hot news, in the past couple of years, some people made mention about Facebook privacy being a real issue because of advertising. I never thought that Facebook advertising would be a huge threat to privacy: whether you’re using Facebook ads directly or a third party service via one of the types of companies listed at for example, there’s no way for any third party to get real personally identifying information merely through ad clicks. It’s not ever in Facebook’s self-interest for that data to ever be sent to businesses because of the value of the data.

    The big threat that Facebook poses to privacy, and what is really disconcerting, is their cozy relationship with government spying and the recent Snowden and other whistleblowing that has gone on. All of the non-denials that these big firms made read the same and looked carefully written to avoid saying the absolute truth. LavaBit coming out recently shuttering their business rather than complying with the Feds is a really big deal. That’s the big reason why I’d agree with anybody calling Facebook evil. Even Google, a company that prides itself on “doing no evil” is walking down this horrible path.

    I personally would not recommend using Facebook in any aspect of any educational program, regardless of the convenience factor. Unfortunately, the government makes it so that regardless of what tools you use, you’re likely spied on either way, so there has to be some political change as well.

  11. @Malcolm James

    Do we have evidence that Facebook decided to hand over data to the government whereas they did not have the full might of government agencies against them?

    You know, conversations can go like this:

    – Hand over everything you have on X.

    – No

    – Ok, by this secret court order, we can send our armed agents directly in your server room and tap right in if you refuse to comply.

    – Ah. Ok, never mind, here is the data.

    Granted, we don’t have the full story… but why don’t we have the full story? Because the government (not Facebook) makes it illegal to share the full story.

  12. @Daniel Lemire.

    The government is just taking advantage of the resources available to them. If Facebook hadn’t consolidated so much personal information in one silo, then it would have been much more effort for the government to grab it.

    I’m not saying that Facebook were knowingly complicit in this. Or even deliberately “evil”. That language is mystifying rather than clarifying.

    But I think in 2013 we can suddenly see the big problem we’ve just sleepwalked into by trusting our entire personal lives to a very small number of giant cloud-based social information providers.

    Corporations seek profits. They didn’t get gigantic in order to sell us out to the government. But they did get gigantic in order to exploit their capacity to gather and crunch vast amounts of social data. The existence of such giant silos, run with the technology to manipulate it is an inherent risk.

    Think of it like pollution. No one in the world *wants* to pollute. But for some people it’s an inevitable toxic byproduct of their business model.

    Facebook (or G+ etc.) don’t want to imperil your civil rights, but it’s an inevitable toxic byproduct of their business model.

  13. @Phil Jones

    Let me rewrite your first paragraph as follows:

    The government is just taking advantage of the resources available to them. If guns and bombs had not been invented, then it would have been much more effort for the government to wage wars and kill thousands.

    You see my point? I am just not as eager as most people to let the governments off the hook and blame social media instead. If people abuse social media, we should blame them, not social media.

    Facebook has been, overwhelmingly, a force for good. I would prefer a decentralized system, of course… but I see no reason to believe that a decentralized system could not be monitored by evil government forces.

    Think of it like pollution. No one in the world *wants* to pollute. But for some people it’s an inevitable toxic byproduct of their business model.

    Right. So car manufacturers produce cars which, in turn, pollute. You should feel free not to use cars and buses, and planes. Walk or bike everywhere you go. Note however that, without cars and trucks, and planes, our civilization would collapse. We could not sustain it.

    I think that social media is like this. You can, individually, become a hard-core Luddite… but social media is now hard-wired into our civilization.

  14. Sure, I absolutely DON’T want to let governments off the hook here. I’m extremely critical of them.

    But I AM rejecting the Libertarian manicheanism that divides the world into “government” (bad) / “private enterprise” (good) and then says that you can’t hold private enterprise to account or political scrutiny just because it’s not government or because government would be the tool to curb it.

    I’m demanding a more subtle political understanding that recognizes that “government” and “private wealth” are always intertwined and interdependent. And that you have to actually go beyond cheerleading one side or the other to criticize *this particular* blend of the two.

    In this case, the situation we’ve got ourselves into in 2013 is bad. And it’s become bad because of the behaviour of BOTH government AND private corporations. And neither of them is excused just because of the kind of thing that they are.

    I disagree that Facebook is an overwhelming force for good in the context of the overall internet. I’m no Luddite; of course I think the overall internet is a net positive. But Facebook’s domination is a negative compared to other, more open and pluralistic ways that internet culture might have evolved.

  15. @Phil Jones

    I am not sure why you bring about libertarians… but classical liberal values are not pro-corporation. Most libertarians opposed limited liability, which is at the core of the corporation. Most libertarians believe that without this government intervention, most “private companies” would be smaller than modern-day corporations and that there would be an actual market. Corporations tend to kill markets… in fact, they were created specifically with the goal of acquiring and maintaining monopolies… effectively getting rid of the small entrepreneurs.

    You are right that the distinction between a corporation and the government can be very slim. One is an extension of the other (it is sometimes unclear which is an extension of which)… but we should still lay the blame at the right spot.

    The example you give me to illustrate the “intertwingling of government and private sector” is the government poaching the chief security officer from Facebook. And that’s somehow Facebook’s fault? If you read the link you offer, the NSA is forcing companies to “collaborate”. If the NSA is spying on us, it is 100% its fault. The NSA is almost certainly a pain in the neck for Facebook. They’d rather not have to deal with it, you can be sure of that. But they are being forced into it.

    In London, the government put cameras everywhere. I never hear a peep of protest about that. Yet, if Facebook decided to put cameras everywhere, what would you say? You would protest. So it is ok for the government, but not ok for Facebook…

    Why are the actions coming from Facebook somehow more dangerous and evil than when they come from the government?

    How many people has Facebook killed? How many people has your government killed? How often does Facebook use force to enforce its will… how many armed guards does Facebook have? What about your government?

    I think that a government is orders of magnitude more dangerous than a company like Facebook.

    Facebook’s domination is a negative compared to other, more open and pluralistic ways that internet culture might have evolved.

    Before Facebook, the regular folks were simply cut off from social media. Social media was essentially a thing for the elite.

    Suppose that you killed Facebook and G+, how would you replace them with an “open and pluralistic” approach, that would not leave the bulk of the Facebook users in the dust? Who is going to provide the infrastructure and the support?

    But even if you did build the Facebook equivalent, why do you assume that the NSA would not just as easily abuse it?

    There is no getting around it. There would be abuse from the government with or without Facebook.

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