Daniel Lemire's blog

, 4 min read

Privacy and the Internet: Is Facebook evil?

For several of my classes, I open Facebook groups so that my students can exchange online. In some instances, it has worked great. Facebook tends to do a better job than school-provided posting boards. A small minority of students have taken offense to my practice for privacy reasons. It is fine: I would never require students to use Facebook. But I still think that some of these students might be misguided about what privacy is.

First, we must recognize that it is very hard to be anonymous these days. Your smartphone can be tracked. You can be identified from the sites you browse. There are cameras everywhere. Employers record which sites you visit, which email you send or receive.

However, it is hardly new. A few years back, I lived deep in the country. At some point, my car got stuck in the mud. A nice fellow passed us by and came to help us. When he was done, he asked about my wife’s pregnancy. My wife did not show yet… and we never talked with this man, but he still knew all about us. This is how our ancestors lived. If you did something interesting or wrong, word got around. It is only when villages became towns and cities that we stopped caring about our neighbours. Mostly, this happened during the last century. For thousands of years, we lived in small communities where everybody knew everything about everyone. You could not cheat on your wife without all of the village to know within weeks.

Some people love to hate Google or Facebook for all the information they gather. It seems very invasive. It seems like a violation of our privacy. Of course, compared to what happens in a small village, Google servers are much more powerful. If you sleep with the wrong person, all the village might know the next day… with Google, the wrong person could upload a video of your night for millions to see. However, the fact that privacy violation can be more damaging today does not change what privacy is and isn’t.

I consider myself a sophisticated computer user. I could find ways to make it hard for the power-that-be to track me. Yet I am not concerned enough to bother. In fact, I suspect that most computer scientists and software programmers make no attempt to hide on the web.

Why is that?

It is not that they don’t value their privacy. Rather, it is because they recognize that there is a difference between invisibility and privacy. Remaining invisible is hard work and ultimately not what most people want. Very few people want to invisible to strangers.

Intent is key. When I walk downtown, people see me. They see what I buy and when I buy it. There are cameras recording me. Yet I feel at ease. However, if someone followed me and recorded what I did, I would feel uneasy.

Hence, if web servers record my HTTP request, there is no harm done. Sure enough, if someone has a good reason to, they can then trace back what actions and possibly hold it against me. But being observed, by itself, is fair game. In this sense, I am not overly worried about Google and Facebook, or my government. Collecting the information is not, by itself, cause for worry.

Of course, people could use the trace I leave online to harm me somehow. But this record of my online activities is not, by itself, a violation of my privacy.

People have accused Facebook of privacy violations. I’m sure it has happened. For example, maybe some Facebook engineer who wanted to go out with a woman decided to track and gather all information on this woman. This is creepy and should not been allowed. I’m hoping that such a woman could sue for damages and win. In general, however, the people behind Google and Facebook do not set out to violate your privacy. As a side product of their work, some people might have an easier time violating your privacy, but that’s not the same. Rather it’s like saying that power tools make murder easier. Though they do, that is not their intent.

If you are going to stay away from Facebook for privacy fears, you should probably learn to always pay cash, do away with point cards, avoid cell phones and never use the web. As a student, it might be more profitable to use some of these technologies, but in a way that minimizes the harm people could do to you if they set out to violate your privacy. You should also be aware that even if you stay away from Facebook, YouTube and credit cards, people can use online technologies to harm you. Some of the most severe privacy cases I can recall had to do with people who did not use Facebook or YouTube. The genie is out of the bottle: you simply cannot wish these technologies away. They can cause harm to you no matter what. Closing down Facebook would not help. Update: Google and Microsoft are currently suing the American government for the right to share with their users more information about how their sensitive information is being used. Facebook is similarly trying to share the number of government requests it receives from the government. In other words, corporations view privacy breaches as bad for their business. Facebook and Google have no financial incentive to creep out their users.