May 8, 2010

Your Behavior and Your Data

Chuck shared a video which discusses the lack of privacy of your data on digital copy machines, and how easily it is to get very sensitive data off used machines.

It recalled a recent conversation I had with Julie about Facebook. Like many people, Julie and I have concerns about privacy and Facebook. I choose to use Facebook despite those concerns.

There may be a number of issues with Facebook's policies, the attitude of its founder, mistakes its made in the past, but this story illustrates what I think is a much larger problem outside of Facebook. I think that the biggest threats to the privacy of your personal information will not come from places like Facebook. That's because I see Facebook as living in a mostly glass house where we can all see a lot of what is going on. There is a ton of attention on Facebook, and every change they make is scrutinized. It's masticated by media blogs, swallowed, regurgitated and masticated again like a ruminant with a particularly tough clump of cud.

And as that rumination occurs, you are given tools to control some of what Facebook does with your information. They are not perfect, and you may not have complete control (except that you can opt out entirely, which may or nay not be complete) but you have some control and some knowledge, if you care to.

Meanwhile, in the larger world, you have practically zero control, few laws to protect you, and can be leaking private data by the barrel-full of metaphorical ink without your knowledge.

I'm not even talking about shopper's discount cards and the types of data your supermarket is collecting about you. I'm not talking about the possibility that supermarkets in the near future might collect this data in ways you can't opt out of, even using facial recognition to identify what you're interested in. (Imagine how valuable it would be for a supermarket to know that, while you didn't buy it, you spent 3 whole minutes looking in the specialty section at some expensive salsa. Issuing you a checkout coupon might really pay off.)

I'm talking about things you have no control over. Your doctor's office uses copy machines. Your local police precinct does as well. Your name is on all sorts of lists. If you've ever made a telephone call to customer service, there are likely recordings, transcripts and profiles based on those transcripts attached to your name. If people are printing those out and then getting rid of the copiers, you have no idea who now has the information.

By all means check out what Facebook is doing. But without strong laws to protect privacy, it'll be a finger plugging a hole as the water rushes over the top of the dam.

Imagine you like ice cream. Your doctor warns that your cholesterol level is a problem. So you decide to just eat ice cream once a week. Your cholesterol is still a problem. So, sadly, you cut it out altogether and stop getting your cholesterol tested out of frustration. Meanwhile, unknown to you, someone is pumping heavy cream into your veins while you are asleep at night. You've given up ice cream essentially for nothing. Luckily, this is an unrealistic scenario health-wise. But not data-wise.

Bottom line, it's not just about what you do. There was a lot of talk this week from Facebook users about good reasons to get rid of Facebook. (Assuming you like Facebook -- since there is no reason for discussion if you're getting rid of Facebook because you don't like it.)

However, if you do like it, don't quit under any illusions. Here's a big possible reason not to quit Facebook: you enjoy it and it probably won't make you much more private to ditch it.

Changing your behavior can sometimes do more to inconvenience and annoy you than it does to benefit or protect you.

Posted by James at May 8, 2010 11:20 AM
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Mmmmm. Ice cream.

I may be on Facebook as soon as tonight, if I can get my other stuff done early enough.

Posted by: Julie at May 8, 2010 3:21 PM

One thing slightly off-topic I can say for a certainty, Facebook does not improver my productivity.

But it does give me some welcome breaks (illusion of social contact) when I'm in a deep hole of work.

Also, there seems to be enough pressure to join without me explicitly adding to it. I hope nobody reads this post as encouragement to join Facebook. It's meant more to explain my own perspective, and why I can justify riding along.

Posted by: James at May 8, 2010 3:44 PM

I am concerned about what Facebook will do to my productivity, but so far my productivity has been doing a pretty good job of keeping me off of Facebook anyway.

Including today. :(

But if not tomorrow, then hopefully next weekend.

Posted by: Julie at May 8, 2010 9:25 PM

I use Facebook for the same reason James does: illusion of social contact. Being on a different continent strains relationships & being able to see what some friends are doing and share part of my life with them is very valuable to me.

Posted by: Sharon at May 9, 2010 7:58 AM

And for friends who are so distant, it's really a great way to keep track of what's going on. I appreciate hearing about your adventures, and what other folks are doing since I can't see them in person.

Posted by: James at May 9, 2010 8:40 AM

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