The Privacy Debate


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Recently we've seen a preponderance of privacy issues arising on Facebook and other social networks. We've seen a rash of irksome copy/paste status updates such as this: "If you don't know, as of today, Facebook will automatically index all your info on Google, which allows everyone to view it. To change this option, go to Settings --> Privacy Settings --> Search --> then UN-CLICK the box that says 'Allow indexing'. Facebook kept this one quiet. Copy and paste onto your status for all your friends ASAP"

Firstly, Facebook did not keep this quiet, nor will they "automatically index all your info on Google" - typical fear-mongering bullshit, and it won't be "available to everyone" unless you allow it. If you think they kept it "quiet" then you are simply saying that you didn't know about it i.e. you are ignorant. Perhaps I'm being unfair to the millions of users of social networks who do not necessarily keep up to date with developments in the Web 2.0 sphere. Google and Microsoft's Bing search engines have both recently entered deals with Facebook and Twittter to include content from these websites in their search results.


These deals were inked two months ago and if you've been using Google or Bing lately you may have started noticing tweets etc in your search results. Let's start off exploring why this has happened. The Twittter phenomenon has taken the Internet by storm. All the "giants" - Google, Bing, Facebook, MySpace (I include the dying MySpace only because it still has a vast membership) - didn't see it coming. Twitter basically heralded the arrival of the real-time web. Twitter is like a finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Whatever is happening in the world, internationally or locally, will undoubtedly break on Twitter within nanoseconds. It is real-time or live, so to speak, as opposed to most of the searchable web which is "archived" information. Why is this such a game changer? The modern world in the Information Age evolves at breakneck speed. People live their lives at an alarming pace and they demand access to information at the quickest possible speeds and convenience. Why would you want a link to a three hour old news story from a war zone, when you could be getting eye-witness accounts from people on the scene?

Real-time could be called Web 2.1. It's Web 2.0 with a nitrous injection. It's the answer to instant gratification in an information-powered world. Social networks and sites such as Twitter are where all of this real-time information is being shared, created, discussed, blogged, updated etc. It was therefore crucial for the leaders in web search, namely Google and Bing, to get a finger in that pie, or they would be left behind. Here's Google's own blog on the subject to show you how they see it.

The real-time web and you

Three years ago, TIME Magazine published their "Person of the Year" feature with a 'mirror' on the front cover. The "Person of the Year" was YOU. As stated in the article: "It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes." This was preceded two years earlier by Merriam-Webster's #1 Word of the Year for 2004: "blog". This all referenced how Web 2.0 was coming of age. If you are online and blogging, on Facebook, tweeting on Twitter, chatting on IM, arguing in forums, posting comments on news articles, uploading videos to YouTube, archiving your family holiday snaps on Flickr, or sharing any part of your life on the Internet, then you are part of the real-time web.

The privacy threat

Once you are online, you need to realise that the Internet allows for persistence. Everything that goes online is stored on a server somewhere. Google indexes up to a trillion urls, for example. Or check out Wayback Machine to find websites from the past. Even if you didn't upload the information yourself, there will still be personal information stored on a server connected to the Internet, somewhere on the planet. Your ID number, your tax number, your car registration, your bank account number, your telephone number, your address, your credit information. It is all stored online somewhere. Even if you aren't online, your friends or colleagues will upload photos of you, chat about you, post your phone number for a friend to get hold of you. It is virtually impossible to stay “off the grid” for people who live in this digital world.

Despite security measures, if there is information online then it is hypothetically available to anyone with the knowledge to breach these security systems. NOTHING is 100% private. The most sophisticated hackers can bypass almost any security systems.

Despite this fact it is always prudent to educate yourself in maintaining the best security for your information. Install AV software and run anti-spyware software. If you really want to make sure your stuff remains private then you MUST read all the terms and conditions of every single website and program that you use. I'm sure all of us simply click the “Yes” button and surf on through without ever reading them.

On Facebook, click “Settings” then “Privacy Settings” to set up exactly which information you want available and to whom. If you have something set to “Everyone” and then under the “Search” setting you have “Allow” clicked to allow the search engines to index your information, then this information can and will probably appear in a search. As it plainly says on FB: “Public search results: This setting only allows search engines to access your publicly available information and any information you set to Everyone. This does not include anything you've shared with just your friends or friends of friends.” Pretty straight forward.

However, why do you think you are so important that your menial daily life should remain private? Or why do you think that a status update about going to KFC for lunch is so “private” that it shouldn't be seen by a stranger?

If you make everything on FB “Only Friends” then that is what will happen. It's not rocket science. This “privacy” fear-mongering panders to society's natural thirst for unsubstantiated panic. It's the same with most hoax emails you will see: Girls getting raped in mall toilets and then having their clothes stolen, the latest hijacking method, don't flash your lights at people with their car lights off because you will be killed in some gang initiation. It's all bullshit, but people feel the need to propagate this nonsense. Sidenote: Please, for fucksakes, check before you post anything or forward some bullshit email. You fucking moronic troglodytes! /rant

If you haven't customised your privacy settings on Facebook then that's your own stupid fault. As I have said, it isn't bloody rocket science and the onus is on you, not Facebook, to protect your own information. Your online privacy is your own prerogative. If you click on some dodgy link and soon find your Facebook account “hacked” (it isn't hacked by the way, you hacked it yourself by clicking on the link and/or application), then it is YOUR fault. These websites do their utmost to protect your from spammers and hackers, but ultimately it is you who are the weakest link and it is you who is normally to blame.

Lastly, I can't understand this obsession with privacy. My own life is an open book. I really don't give a shit if Google indexes my tweets and my updates, photos or whatever else they feel like making available. In fact, I'm more than happy to contribute. Google is the greatest information-seeking tool I have ever seen. It is amazing. I love it. If they are moving toward real-time search, then that's fantastic. It will make my life easier. It will enhance and augment my life in myriad useful ways. Why would I then want to resist it? I also can not understand why I would want to make my rather trivial existence private. The more the merrier. Web 2.0 is an interactive experience and I'm a very willing and active member of this incredible human achievement. Technophobes and the ignorant (who unfortunately make up the majority of the online – and offline – world) should stay the hell off the computer if they have a problem with this “privacy” business.

Perhaps they are paranoid because, despite ignorance being bliss, humans also fear that which they do not know. It all boils down to personal competence and knowledge. Knowledge is power. If you are sufficiently techno-literate and you educate yourself, then you really have nothing to fear.

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