Thursday, 21 June 2007

Privacy advocates reveal all on Facebook

The anti-ID card lobbying group, NO2ID, has a group on Facebook.

Leaving my own political views to one side, I can't help but smile at the fact that the anti-ID card lobby is using this particular platform to make its voice heard.

The group says it's opposed to the idea of the government having 'a huge database to keep tabs on everyone, a massive infrastructure to collect peoples' [sic] details, and a giant network of technology required to verify people against their cards and both of these against the database'.

If Facebook continues on its current trajectory, very soon the government won't need its own huge database, massive infrastructure or 'giant network of technology' to keep tabs on UK citizens. We'll all have willingly uploaded our most intimate details to Facebook for interested parties to browse at leisure.

In May, the Guardian reported that Facebook had 3.69 million UK users, with membership growing at 3% a week. Much of its rapid growth is down to the way it recruits new users. Every time someone signs up, Facebook encourages them to send 'join requests' to all of their email contacts. This has led some to view Facebook as a virus, or a 'social pyramid scheme'.

But whether you view Facebook as a fun way of keeping up with friends or as a virus infecting the population, one thing's for sure - a lot of people seem quite happy to use it to publish every intimate detail of their personal lives.

One click on NO2ID's group page, for example, takes me to the profile of one of its officers, Bridget Fox. Here I can view 54 photos of Bridget, plus photos and profiles of her 90 friends; read about her cat Percy, her partner Richard, her day job at SirsiDynix Ltd and her political activities as a Lib Dem PPC; and commend her for her taste in TV programmes (Doctor Who) and literature (Cold Comfort Farm).

The amount of personal information on Facebook has already led to its being used as an investigative tool by some police forces. It only needs one hip young policy wonk to persuade the Home Office to rebrand the ID card scheme as a social network, and the whole thing will probably take off without a hitch.

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Zafar said...

That's why you have privacy setting which allow no one to see your profile apart from your friends. It is a facility that is provided by Facebook which was not available in MySpace or hi5.

Fiona Blamey said...

Hi Zafar, thank you for dropping by. I'm aware that Facebook has some fairly advanced privacy settings, and is getting more sophisticated in this regard all the time, and all credit to them for that, even if it doesn't always work as well as it should.

However, the point I wanted to make was that many people seem to actively want their personal information to be public, even those who are politically committed to information privacy.

There seems to be a general desire for online 'publicness' that appears to be spurred partly by innate exhibitionism and partly by peer pressure. I just wonder how many people will come to regret making so much information public - I know that I already have.

Dave Bartlett said...

There are distinctive features that separate 'Facebook' and other social networking sites from any official government personal data record:

1) Facebook is voluntary - sending invitations to your friends to join facebook is hardly in line with legally compelling people to have their details recorded and then insisting that they also pay for the privilege.

2) I can put absolutely anything I like about myself on Facebook. Nobody will first be verifying that the details recorded are correct. However, with an official data store, who will verify that OTHER PEOPLE are not recording incorrect data about me?

3) Only one person makes the decision as to who shares any data about me on Facebook, and that person is me. Data held by the government can be shared with whoever THEY choose to share it with, and maybe I'm having too little faith in my leaders, but I don't honestly think that they'll check if it's OK by me before they do share my data.

To liken social networking sites to official government identity schemes is inaccurate and unfair and is like equating some scribbled, rumour starting grafitti, with an official criminal record.

Dave Bartlett said...

The main point I'm trying to make in my comment above is that your blog post is actually confusing 'privacy' with 'secrecy'.
People can choose what particular details they share about themselves, and what details they don't. This is 'privacy' WITHOUT 'secrecy'
Taking that option out of the hands of the data subject is destroying the boundary between 'privacy' and 'secrecy'.

Dave Bartlett said...

I've just noticed the date on your original blog posting Fiona, so commenting on it nearly two years later might seem just a little tardy on my part.
In my defence. I've only just been drawn to it by a Twitter comment you posted today, complete with URL to this blog.
I'm surprised that you didn't have more comments on the original post than you did though.
Anyway, all seems to have lost relevence now doesn't it, since the wonderful Mr Johnston has decided that ID cards WON'T after all be compulsory (at least this week they won't, anyway - whatever happened to government policy, as opposed to government popularity catching?)

Fiona Campbell-Howes said...

Hi Dave, thanks for commenting - yes, sorry, it's an old post but the hoo-ha about Sir John Sowers today reminded me of it.

I know that Facebook is a completely different proposition from a government ID database (although there's nothing stopping other people from revealing incorrect information about you on Facebook, or even impersonating you completely) - my aim wasn't to suggest they're one and the same. Rather I wanted to show that people can be (in my view) quite reckless with their personal data when it's dressed up as 'fun', even those who are normally concerned with keeping data private.

The database is another case in point - people appear to be quite happy to hand over their DNA samples to a third party when it seems like fun.

I'm just saying that people should maybe think a bit more about the potential consequences before they voluntarily consign their most personal data to someone else's database - especially if it's then going to appear in the public domain.

Nibus said...

Well said, Dave. I'm not sure that Mr Johnson knows how 'voluntary' works. He's decided - or rather the IPS has told him - that the *cards* aren't to be compulsory. But yet he's still happy to 'fully endorse' the IPS's recent 'Safeguarding Identity' strategy which says The vision for the NIS is that **it will become an essential part of everyday life**; underpinning interactions and transactions between individuals, public services and businesses and supporting people to protect their identity. If only it was like Facebook.

Fiona Campbell-Howes said...

Don't get me wrong, I'm completely anti-ID cards. But just because Facebook is fun and you choose what information you put there (although in fact you aren't at all in control of what information about you is put there), that doesn't mean it can't be used against you. Like this, for example.

Dave Bartlett said...

Overall though that's the big distinction isn't it: Facebook is 'fun', non-serious, personal, non-official and voluntary. Every bit of information people put on there, whether true or not, is determined by themselves. If other people assume their identity and post untruths, then the subject can always deny those 'facts' since they have no more gravity than spoken rumours.
A national database is serious, official, compulsory (even if it's voluntary, if you're on there, the data they'll hold is compulsory: they don't let you choose what data will be held,) and official.
It's serious in that the controllers of the national database by default hold control of your life and your reputation.
Let's try to compare this to identity theft. People getting hold of bits of official, serious data about a person can do real damage, though they'll not likely to be very successful if all they get is access to your personal diary or daily journal.
That's all Facebook is: a diary that you can (if you decide to,) share with other people (of your choice) NOT a complete undeniable record of all that makes up you as a person.
It's quite viable and acceptable to be a real Facebook addict, at the same time as resisting the whole idea of a national database and national Id card. As I said earlier: Secrecy is something you can choose to have or not. Privacy is something that is your right to keep, and to control.

Fiona Campbell-Howes said...

No, I understand your point completely, I just wouldn't be so confident that Facebook and other 'fun', 'non-official' sites pose no threat to your civil liberties.

If you can be detained and barred from travelling on the basis of an anonymous person labelling you a terrorist on Wikipedia, or scammed out of money by someone posing as one of your real friends on Facebook, it means those sites are more dangerous than many people think.

Not so much now, but certainly a couple of years ago when I wrote this, I saw good friends of mine merrily publish their full name, current address, date of birth, phone number, kids' names, spouse's name etc. on Facebook, without giving any thought to whether putting all of that information in the public domain is really a good idea. And all because it seemed like fun.