Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Facebook vs privacy

I'm getting a little tired of this, I thought, as I read an article explaining that Facebook had rolled out yet another change to their service without notifying anyone, and one which has potentially massive consequences some well paid advisor seems to have completely overlooked.

I'm referring, of course, to the automatic facial recognition and subsequent tagging technology which Facebook has just rolled out and been forced to apologise for. But lets start at the beginning because the beginning isn't here. The beginning of this story is with this article on Cnet among other sites which quoted Facebook Vice President of Product as saying "Once you know that, you can remove the tag, or you can promote it to your friends, or you can write the person and say, 'I'm not that psyched about this photo.'"

We'll come back to the utter stupidity of that statement in a moment.

Meanwhile, there is the calm before the storm in this article which explains that the 'feature' has launched. The key word in the entire article, I think, is the word quietly. I didn't know this was coming and I read quite a bit and try and least nod my head in the direction of keeping up with social media developments. One questions exactly why a company, who 6 months ago was singing the praises of a technological development they'd achieved, suddenly decided to go ahead with the launch but ever so quietly. Surely if you had reservations about the launch, that you needed to be tippy toey about it, you'd not launch it at all?

I'm guessing the words 'floating' and 'stocks we haven't even officially sold yet' are playing a part here. And that's worrying, because this is peoples privacy which is being sacrificed at the alter of corporate stakeholder satisfaction. This is not selling a product. This is, I think, about ultimately selling data. And then there's that slightly unfortunate issue with Google - not great for your share price you don't have yet either. 

So what's my problem?

How stupid do you have to be to not learn from the first time you made a mistake and set something to opt out instead of opt in? How stupid do you have to be to not understand that there is only so much damage your brand can take before users abandon you? Has no one learnt how fickle users can be on the internet yet? Has no one over in silicon valley been reading the slightly nervous sounding and increasingly frequent editorials about bubbles bursting yet again?

But that's not the thing really baking my noodle right now. No. Lets go back to the quote from the VP at Facebook:
"Once you know that, you can remove the tag, or you can promote it to your friends, or you can write the person and say, 'I'm not that psyched about this photo."

Or, and this is just another scenario off the top of my head, you can write the person and say 'I'm not that psyched about this photo' and they can turn around and say 'sorry sister, but you ran off with my boyfriend, no way am I deleting this photo of you which makes you look like a complete idiot and in the process ruin any chance of anyone ever employing you ever again'

Or, maybe you can write them and say 'I'm not that psyched about this photo because my psycho father who I have moved to another State to get away from, via a refuge and a few intervening years doesn't know what I look like and I have been incredibly careful about which Facebook photos get tagged with me and all my friends knew it was quite important not to tag me in Facebook photos but thanks to this new facial recognition software, and me not noticing, every photo I've ever been in but not been tagged on can now be seen by the entire world, because even if my privacy settings are locked down tight, I am now completely and utterly at the mercy of every other person in the entire worlds privacy settings who has a photo on their profile which I happen to be in - even if it's waaaaay in the background and I happened to be walking by accidentally'

You think I'm reaching?

Okay, how about the one where a 10 year marriage breaks up because someone is caught in a photo in the background passing by - caught somewhere where they shouldn't be.

The implications are endless. And that's before you've taken the vindictive and frankly sometimes downright nasty environment of high schools and secondary schools into account.

I may be forced to use Facebook as part of my job, I may have to have an account for testing purposes and because all social invites are placed there these days, but don't expect me to have anything but scorn for a company and a system which is free, oh yes it is, but is taking advantage of peoples unfamiliarity with tech at every turn and doing the equivalent of what banks were doing in the 80's with small print - intentionally confusing and overwhelming people so they didn't bother to read anything and just signed on the dotted line.


  1. As the saying goes: If you're not the customer you're the product. I don't expect Facebook to get better, I expect them to get worse as they grow bigger and calculate that people really can't live their lives without them.

  2. Ah.
    I think you're wrong. I think the Facebook generation are going to grow up and regret being quite so open with their photos and their social lives and their er...inappropriate moments.
    And, also, people are fickle and the interface is frankly horrid and people will get bored.

  3. Well a year is a long time in tech let alone 20, so I won't make any specific predictions about Facebook the company. But I reckon there'll be something much like it around for quite a while.

    We need a new name for something if it doesn't have one already. It's the thing where you do things online or even in the real world on the assumption that your privacy is essentially safe given the technology and policies in place at the time. But then the tech and policies change and you end up far more exposed than you would have previously agreed to.

    With every day that passes we generate more data and improve our ability to mine it. There's an alarmingly rapid privacy creep going on.

  4. Wholeheartedly agree with that. And in the 80's there was an assumption that financial institutions were regulated and watched by government and wouldn't stitch people up with the small print but they weren't and they did.

    I'm kinda struggling because on the one hand I believe regulating the internet is a dead cert to kill innovation and creativity. However, when it comes to things like this, I find it abhorrent and laughable that Ryan Giggs gets a mention in Parliament as an issue of concern and this does not. That some people are making such a fuss about offline education yet this privacy creep is happening under their noses and potentially threatening the safety of millions of young people because of a lack of understanding of the implications and knock on effects of not bothering with privacy settings is...scary.