Saturday, May 15, 2010

Online privacy is NOT news

When I start feeling annoyed at reading the same tired rants over and over, that’s usually a sign that it’s time to speak up – either to say “shut up!” or something a little more intelligent. I’d like to think I’m hitting the mark of the latter here.

There have been, and will continue to be, loads and loads of articles about privacy concerns on Facebook. You can find them with little to no effort by entering the words “Facebook” and “privacy” in the search field of Google’s news site. Or you can just click here, since that’s what you really want to do, isn’t it?

The latest, and potentially most explosive, entry in this “news cycle” is the release of an alleged IM conversation between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and an unnamed friend. The conversation supposedly took place when Zuckerberg was 19, and given his age at the time, I wouldn’t be surprised if the epithet he supposedly gave to his users at the time was true. Kids at that age can be an impulsive, impolitic bunch.

Though Facebook has since issued a statement to clarify its official stance on user privacy, there’s another issue here that few people seem to be acknowledging: online privacy is NOT news!

After over a decade and a half of mainstream news reports of the havoc wreaked by hackers and spammers, have we not gotten the message that no matter what online service we use, we are all at risk for an invasion of privacy when we submit our personal information to an online service?

No matter how secure an online service is, you are *always* at risk for a privacy invasion. If the company isn’t willing to sell the information to third parties, a hacker may still find a way to steal it. It’s the same reality we deal with when we walk the city streets – no matter who is watching out for us, whether it’s the police or privately-hired security officers, we’re always at risk to be mugged or roughed up in some way. It’s a fact of life.

Not to take away from Facebook’s responsibilities towards its users – the company’s users have every right to keep Facebook in a position to prove itself, and if the company wants to be successful, it will find a way to go above and beyond what’s expected, both in terms of satisfying its user base and its bottom line.

But when it comes down to basics, it’s very simple. The best protector of your online privacy is you. If you don’t feel comfortable having your age determine what products are marketed to you on Facebook, don’t share your year of birth. If you don’t want the world to see those pictures of you getting drunk with transvestite hookers, then don’t upload them! Even if Facebook prevents them from coming up in Google searches, who’s to say that one of your “friends” won’t download the photos and then share them somewhere else that *will* allow Google to index them in searches? There’s only so much Facebook can do. The rest is up to you.

If you ever run into a jam trying to figure out whether you should share something online, there’s a really simple test you can apply. I learned this non-technical exercise from a particularly tech-savvy ex-girlfriend of mine. Ask yourself, “would I want my mother to see this?”

There you go. Now stop worrying and enjoy the web. It’s really fun when you realize just how much control of the experience you really do have.

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