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Privacy Policy: The Big Bad Facebook

by Archives October 30, 2007

It seems these days Facebook is the coolest trend among students and is checked as often as e-mails. With over 150,000 users joining the website each day, according to the company’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, what could possibly be wrong with Facebook? The popular website enables its 49 million active users to socialize, make connections and meet new friends. It also gets people informed about upcoming events that may be of interest to them and allows personal and artistic exposure.
But it turns out Facebook may be more than just a guilty pleasure. As famous 60s critic Marshal McLuhan said, each technological advance creates an “extension” of ourselves, but also “amputates” a part of us. So what is the technological advance of Facebook in fact making us leave behind? Not much, asides for privacy, ownership of our own information, quotes and creations, and the capacity to be aware of what we share and with whom.
After checking out an online video warning about the big bad Facebook, (http://www.albumoftheday.com/facebook/ ) and secretly being a closet fan of the ‘Book and its marvels, I decided to investigate the issue and carefully read over the ten-plus pages of the company’s privacy policy and do some fact checking.
Internet users generally turn a blind eye towards the usual somewhat unnerving privacy policy terms in order to be part the web. For example, “information you submit to Facebook will be available to users who belong to at least one of the networks [you belong to],” which, being part of the “Montreal, QC” network for example, means its 323,987 can access all your information. Facebook states they will share some of your information for purposes such as “personalizing advertisements and promotions” for you. They even add in the line “We believe this benefits you.” It makes me all warm and fuzzy inside to know the staff behind the website care enough about their users to go out of their way and help companies tailor ads for us.
(check out Google tracker article p. 2-2)
But some of the company’s privacy policy is a bit worrisome, such as their favoring terms such as “generally” in sentences like “we generally allow you to specify . privacy settings.” And Facebook does “not reveal information until we have a good faith belief that an information request by law enforcement or private litigants meets applicable legal standards.” Well thank God! I feel secure trusting in their “good faith.”
There are cases in which Facebook has been used by both police and university officials to investigate and make arrests linked to underage drinking and hate speech, for example.
Then, there’s the downright creepy “Big Brother” type of clause that makes me wish 1984 had been taken more seriously: “Facebook may also collect information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs, IM (Instant Messaging) and other users of the Facebook service.” And, “by using Facebook, you are consenting to have your personal data transferred to and processed in the United States,” but maybe not by just anyone in the U.S.
Let’s step back for a minute and look at a former project developed by the U.S. Department of Defense’s research and development agency, and how it links in some ways to Facebook. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), one of the developers of the ARPANET, which was the foundation for the internet we use today, also spearheaded a project called the Information Awareness Office (IAO).
The IAO was created in 2002 to link together other DARPA projects as a response to threats to national security. One of the project’s tactics was to gain “total information awareness”. When the IAO was first mentioned by James Markoff of the New York Times in 2002, and as more information was made public about the Total Information Awareness program (TIA), there was a great public outcry. The criticism made by civil libertarians was that this project was likely to result in some type of Orwellian mass surveillance system.
After the New York Times later printed a column by William Safire in November 2002, claiming “[TIA] has been given a $200 million budget to create computer dossiers on 300 million Americans,” legislation was formed to suspend IAO activity pending a Congressional review of privacy issues.
Despite these difficulties, portions of the IAO and the TIA have managed to continue under classified annexes of the National Security Agency, according to the National Journal, with the stipulation that the projects only be used for military and foreign intelligence purposes.
According to archives of the IAO website, the TIA’s mandate was “keeping track of individuals and understanding how they fit into models,” which includes detecting and classifying biometric data, (face and fingerprints amongst other information) and transactional data including travel, education and purchases. One of the projects the TIA was intended to integrate was Scalable Social Network Analysis, which was to develop techniques based on an individual’s social network.
Social network analysis, as used by TIA, does coincidentally sound rather close to Facebook. The type of system used by Facebook to provide tailor-made advertising as listed in their policy, includes the collection, compilation and analyzing of data of an individual such as their preferences, networks, purchases, and information about them in newspaper articles and blogs. TIA’s mandate also states the collection of stats on individuals’ networks, preferences, transactions and information in publications, amongst other areas. Doesn’t this sound coincidentally similar?
Additionally, it’s interesting to note that Facebook received a startup venture capital of $12.7 million from Accel Partners. Some board members of Accel have also served on the boards of companies established by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), such as In-Q-Tel.
Why was there a public investigation into the Information Awareness Office and an outcry so strong the organization went “underground”, but that the same threats against personal privacy and security seem to be executed by Facebook?

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