Wednesday 27 February 2013

Who needs 1984 when we’ve got Foursquare?

Online snooping is getting worrying – but if we want to stop this, we must ask some fundamental questions about social media.

The next poster in the series says "Facebook is privacy"

When George Orwell created Nineteen Eighty-Four and Big Brother in 1948, he could scarcely have imagined the future. Not so much the nightmarish vision of the Ministry of Truth, Ministry of Plenty, Ministry of Peace and Ministry of Love, but two things he would never have guessed. Firstly, the emergence of god-awful reality TV show Big Brother (and all the other god-awful reality TV programmes it spawned), and secondly, a load of persecution complex-ridden Middle Englanders who says “It’s just like 1984” every time they get a speeding fine. I suppose some bits bear resemblance to the book, but that tends to be things like petty council officials invoking anti-terrorist laws over littering. All in all, it’s a bit of a damp squib.

But fear not, Mr. Orwell, all is not lost. Recently we have seen the arrival of a new program called RIOT (Rapid Information Overlay Technology). This little device uses information from social networks to track the movements of individual people. It is suggested this could be used as ways of monitoring people who are about to commit a crime – cue analogies to Precrime in Minority Report – but just like its ficticious counterpart, there are serious questions of how reliable this would actually be. Certainly there’s not much enthusiasm from the Police. Which makes me think the key market might be employers. Like a retail manager who wants to know if his staff are shopping at competitors. Or a civil servant checking which pesky underlings attend opposition party meetings in the run-up to an election. This could be fantastic news – if you are a control freak with lots of money and power.

There is just one small but crucial difference to what Orwell had in mind. The subjects of Oceania were forced to be monitored day and night in everything they do, through cameras, curfews and spies. RIOT, on the other hand, runs entirely off information that its unwitting subjects quite happily stuck in the public domain. Love your Facebook status updates? Can’t live without your Tweets? So does RIOT. All this information about where you are and what you’re doing is most useful, thank you very much citizen. Better still, why not take information from Foursquare, a service that makes it trendy to reveal your location as often as possible. Who needs “Big Brother is Watching You” when you can say “Hey there, are you going to put all your private information online like the COOL KIDS do, or are you a LOSER?”

This is not the first time someone was written an online snooping program that uses publicly-accessible information. Previous examples include “Please Rob Me”, to inform you, me, and any local burglars which houses are empty, and sex pest-bonaza “Girls Around Me” showing you the location and physical appearance of females nearby.[1] I should point out that these programs were both written to prove a point – albeit in a highly irresponsible way – but that’s little consolation for anyone affected by this. The Inner Party must be kicking themselves they never thought of this.

Now, as someone with no Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare account, it would be easy of me to scoff and tell everyone affected that they brought it on themselves. But the reality, I think, isn’t quite so simple. This is an issue that I think can only be addressed with some fundamental far-reaching questions about social media.

The problem is that, for many people, social media is now effectively compulsory I have lost count of the number of people who say they’ll Facebook me, as if this is the only way you communicated with people nowadays. (I mean, haven’t these people heard of e-mail?) I personally think that friends who won’t stay in contact if you’re not on Facebook aren’t worth having as friends, but I have a choice of friends who aren’t so obtuse. Other people don’t. This is especially a problem amongst teenagers where invitations to parties and the like are now exclusively given through Facebook – and habits made in teenage years can persist for a long time. And that’s just individuals. If you’re a business, or you’re self-employed, woe betide you if you’re not signed up to Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and

Once you’re signed up, social media sites have a very poor record for privacy. Oh, they’ve got an excellent record in producing privacy policies – it’s just that the typical privacy policy roughly says you don’t have any. The reason I left Facebook (apart from endlessly getting contacted by people I was quite happy to have lost contact with) is that I got sick of all the times the site pestered me to add more and more personal information about myself. Facebook’s claim to privacy lost any credibility when they started sharing information with friends’ friends without asking you. Bear in mind that at least one of your Facebook friends is probably trying to break with world record for most Facebook “friends” they don’t even know; so this makes Facebook about as private as announcing your next relationship breakdown with a skywriting plane. I know there’s all sorts of opt-outs available in social media, but the combination of apathy and confusing configuration settings renders this largely ineffective. As for safeguards against combining information from different social networking sites to form a highly intrusive profile of you – forget it.

Normally I would argue that privately-owned companies should be able to do what they like. But the very nature of social networks makes sites such as Facebook and Foursquare virtual monopolies. And as private monopolies, they have a lot of power but very little responsibility. Foursquare cannot credibly blame third-party apps for using public information they’ve collected, neither can Facebook credibly blame its users for handing over private data they encouraged them to reveal in the first place. We need a serious debate about where social media stands in an increasingly lawless privacy-disregarding internet. For what it’s worth, I think social media should, at the very least, operate information sharing on a strict opt-in basis. And if any users wish to share their information at all, they should make it absolutely clear what this means and what the risks are. I don’t know exactly how this should be done, but this push to make users share more and more private information online isn’t doing any good.

If the big social media sites won’t budge, the only other hope is a culture change from the users. Strange as this may seem to some people, until a few years ago the world functioned perfectly well without Facebook. Social media itself is undoubtedly here to stay, but do we really have to keep the whole world informed of every aspect of our wildly trumped-up social lives? Not all techno-crazes stick around – few people today want the latest Jamster ringtone (thank God). It would, I think, be better if this fashion for sharing all your information online became a passing fad – maybe with a return to old-fashioned offline boasting. If this sounds too difficult, just think what we could achieve. When the Establishment creates the Ministry of Online Privacy, we’ll know they’re rattled.

[1] In Foursquare’s defence, it’s only fair to point out they did block access to Girls Around Me as soon as they found out about it. However, all this really proves is that next time you want to use Foursquare for snooping or stalking, you just make sure they don’t know what you’re up to.

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