Facebook gets taken to task by Canada’s privacy commissioner for hoarding users’ personal info even after they’re dead. Photo by Iain Masterton/Alamy
Okay, so exactly how worried should I be? [rssbreak]
I, like almost half of Canadians (half!), have a Facebook account.
I don't share information that could harm me, should it fall into the wrong hands, whosever those might be. (At least I don't think I do.) As a rule, I'm not particularly concerned about my "privacy."
It's just common sense, isn't it? You have to know that when posting the details of your life online, be it announcing what band you're going to see that night or uploading a drunk, pants-less picture of yourself, you're exposing it for all the world to see.
If you post that you hate your job and your boss needs to downsize somebody, don't be surprised if it's you.
Facebook was taken to task a couple of weeks ago by Canada's privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart.
My first thought was "There's a privacy commissioner?" My second was "Hey! Am I giving away control of my reputation merely for the privilege of being stalked by an audience of people I've never met?"
There were a few gripes in Stoddart's report.
Apparently, there are almost a million Facebook application developers scattered all over the world. Applications allow you to play games, find carpools, send virtual gifts.... It's endless, really.
As soon as you add one of these applications - say you want to see which Golden Girl you are or pick who you'd like to see on Celebrity Big Brother - that app developer has access to whatever information you've posted online.
What happens after that is pretty much anyone's guess.
The folks at the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), the people who lodged the initial complaint with the privacy commissioner, say Facebook isn't clear enough about what it does with your info.
Assistant privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham tells me, "Canadian law says that individuals have to be given clear notice and have to give consent for the sharing of their personal information. Who knows? It could be organized crime, it could be people who use the information maliciously or fraudulently."
Tamir Israel, staff counsel for CIPPIC, adds that people don't necessarily realize that they are posting for all to see. "They feel like they're sharing material with their friends, but really they're sharing with a much broader audience." He points out that a large number of Facebook users are 13 to 19, too young to understand the importance of discretion.
Okay, I'll concede the kid thing. But on the rest of it, I say bullshit.
Fully grown adults who post their information online know full well what they're doing.
You know you're playing to an audience potentially far larger than your circle of online friends, which in most cases is far larger than your circle of real friends.
Facebook does offer the opportunity to adjust your privacy settings. I know people who are virtually impossible to find. You don't have to add applications. You must know that nothing is free. To claim otherwise is to be deliberately obtuse.
Hal Niedzviecki, author of the excellent The Peep Diaries, is living his entire life on camera for a documentary of the same name (so he's, you know, crazy). He thinks I'm being a tad ungenerous but doesn't disagree entirely.
"Our society is very hypocritical about privacy," he says. "The ideal in our culture is the celebrity lifestyle, which is epitomized by bodyguards, limousines, private islands and giant houses surrounded by electrified fences.
"At the same time, we expect to know what our celebrities are feeling and thinking. This is the ideal of how to live - to be completely physically isolated from other people and mentally totally open."
The paparazzi don't follow nurses, schoolteachers or pastry chefs - unless, of course, they're on reality TV. And now we even have reality TV celebrities bitching about the media, people who have actively sought the opportunity to live in the spotlight - see John, Kate and their eight. You have got to be kidding me.
Social networking sites are the same thing. People want to be able to expose themselves while maintaining total control of that exposure, but you can't have it both ways.
Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa's Canada research chair in Internet and e-commerce law, disagrees.
Geist says, "I've been rather surprised by the op-eds I've seen in some of the major papers that seem to suggest it's buyer beware on the Internet and you have no privacy rights, so get over it. I think that's utter nonsense. Surely, privacy law applies online as well as offline."
But people also need to be honest with themselves. As we move forward with social networking sites, blogs, Twitter, whatever else, this issue will get more complex, not less.
"What you put online is for the entire world," says Niedzviecki. "There can be overlap between your in-flesh life and your online life, but they shouldn't be exactly the same."
Niedzviecki muses that most of us are probably willing to give up our information in exchange for "a variety of things, including financial gain, access to community and friendship."
"That doesn't mean people don't want their banking information to be secure online. It means that overall they would rather be noticed."
Go ahead. Share away. Just don't be stupid about it.