Privacy in a Social Network, and Other Oxymorons

Much virtual ink has been spilled over the past day about Robert Scoble’s banishment from Facebook (temporary, it turns out) and the reasons for it, and whether he deserved it. One point of view, espoused by no less than Jeff Jarvis, is that the contents of Scoble’s Facebook address book should be kept in Facebook, not exported to a system of Scoble’s choosing. It violates one’s privacy, apparently.

This is a ludicrously naive position.

Facebook and others may say they will protect your data as if it were their own. They are lying. To some of us, this lie was transparent from the start; but if you still believed the lie after the Beacon fiasco, and stories of information leaks from even the most secure government agencies, then you are a fool.

Once you put information in Facebook, or any other website, and allow others to access it, it is out there, no take-backs. If you want it kept private, then keep it private; and putting it on the web and letting other people see it is not “keeping it private”.

Consider this: Scoble did what he did in broad daylight, blogging about it once he had permission to do so. And he did it with apparently noble intentions, willing to sacrifice his Facebook account for the cause of data portability. (At least, that’s how he presents it after the fact, though I have no reason to doubt him.) And he did it badly; his activity was detected because the Plaxo script was too fast; the simple expedient of slowing it down and adding a little randomness might have allowed him to evade detection.

Now, do you really think the Plaxo developers were the first ones to come up with this idea? Do you think maybe someone else might be doing exactly the same thing, but more quietly, more competently, and with less noble intentions? In view of that, do you really think it’s even theoretically possible for your Facebook data to remain protected?

Do not count on Facebook to do your information security for you; they can’t do it, even if they sincerely mean to. (And are you really sure they do mean to? No matter how much revenue it would cost them?) If you want privacy, you have to manage it yourself. If you don’t want your data out there, then don’t put it out there. Be judicious in what information you supply to the social network; and consider salting it with disinformation.

That, or stop caring so much about privacy: embrace the Transparent Society, learn to stop worrying and love the social. Seriously, that’s a perfectly legitimate stance; privacy is optional. Or find your own personal balance between hiding everything and revealing everything.

But don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can escape the fundamental tension between social networking and privacy.

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