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PostPosted: 15 Nov 2010, 14:27 
Grand Poobah
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If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

Metafilter user blue_beetle in the thread User-driven discontent

The above is a particularly trenchant quote that it is increasingly important to bear in mind, when using on-line services.

With any luck, most people reading this will already have read Facebook is a feminist issue, and a lot of what’s being talking about here will be redundant. In case you haven’t, though, and in case your clicking finger is suffering from temporary paralysis, the broad point it is making is that on-line privacy is a very, very real concern for feminists, since it affects any number of vulnerable classes of people, and particuarly those who are victims of abuse, and that Facebook is quite staggeringly bad when it comes to on-line privacy – it’s another path by which people can abuse one another, and more importantly, it makes it increasingly easy for abusers to track down and/or monitor the activity of their victims – even if their victims block their abuser from their profile, the abuser may still have friends in common with their victim, and therefore be able to see their victim’s activities where they intersect with friends via Facebook photo albums and similar.

Considered in the light of the above quote, it’s very easy to see why this is the case. Facebook’s business model absolutely relies on sharing the personal information of its users with as wide an audience as possible, for marketing purposes – its user-base is the product that it sells. But what’s worse is that even if you yourself choose not to share certain information, that’s no guarantee that it will not be available.

Project Gaydar is a research project by some students at MIT, who built some software that analysed Facebook profiles. They found that even if a person’s Facebook profile did not mention their sexual orientation, they could predict it to 85% accuracy, simply by analysing the profile data of the people they are Facebook friends with. It’s important to stress that there’s no evidence of this research being used outside of the project, or with any sort of malicious intent – it’s simply a demonstration of the possibility.

It’s worth noting that the problem presented by Project Gaydar is actually not Facebook’s fault. It’s simply an emergent property of any social network, on-line or off – one is judged by the company one keeps. And one cannot fault the companies that provide these services, and make us into the products they sell (without getting into anti-capitalist theory, a topic for another time and another place) – the companies are simply behaving as the market dictates.

And this sort of thing in only going to get worse – companies like Foursquare, Gowalla, and Facebook’s new “Places” feature make their users real-time location information available to their friends, on-line. At time of writing, there hasn’t been a high-profile case of this sort of sensitive data being abused or leaked, but it’s surely only a matter of time.

Even beyond the sphere of social networking, there are, of course, other sorts of privacy concerns on-line, relating to anonymity – witness the outing in the press of Zoe Margolis on the publication of her first book. The issue of privacy management on-line is not going to go away any time soon, and as line between the on-line and the off-line increasingly blurs away into nothing it’s a conversation that feminists should be gearing up to be part of.

So, what can you do?

If you’re concerned about your Facebook privacy settings, then you can look at – it’s a volunteer-run site that does its best to stay on top of the ever-shifting goalposts of Facebook privacy.

If you’d like to do further reading on this issue surrounding social networks, privacy and vulnerable people, then searching the brilliant danah boyd’s archive is likely to yield a lot of further reading – it’s not always her primary concern, but the nature of her research into social media means she comes up against it a lot.

You might also like to consider volunteering with, or donating to organisations like the EFF or the ACLU both of which regularly deal with privacy issues as part of their broader remit, and whose blogs are good sources of information on current events in this area.


Chloride and Sodium: Two terribly dangerous substances that taste great together!

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