Facebook Privacy and Mind-Reading

I have always believed that, as a culture, mind-reading was the solution to all of our problems.

This sounds like a joke, but I prefer to think of it as a thought experiment.  Imagine, if you will, that everyone in the world could read minds. Think of the changes and the effect that would have on our culture.

Oh sure, there would be some growing pains as we get used to it.  The first few weeks would be terrible—every dirty secret you had, or thought you didn’t want to acknowledge, would be instantly known by everybody.  It’s hard to imagine a worse fate.

…except when it happens to everyone else too.  How can your boss judge you for secretly wanting to dress up like Jem and the Holograms when you know all about his illicit fantasies involving Hulk Hogan?  No one would ever be able to judge another person, lest they be judged.  Every single character flaw you had would be laid out for all the world to see, and no one could say a thing—because you could see every bad thing they’d ever done.

How could we ever argue? We’d instantly form a complete understanding of the other person’s point of view.  How could we hurt one another? It’s impossible to imagine being cruel or hurtful someone when you feel every pain as if it were your own.  We couldn’t lie, cheat, steal or murder—because everyone would instantly know what we’d done.  The more you think about it, the more you realize…once you get used to it, it might just be a perfect world.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is, I don’t care what Facebook does with my privacy settings.

Now I’ll be the first to recognize that Facebook trying to profit off of my personal information without informing me is serious bad news.  I disapprove whole-heartedly of this behavior.  But in general, the concept of using my personal preferences in order to better market to me things I might be interested in? That doesn’t bother me in the least.

The fact is these days, it’s getting harder and harder to keep secrets.  Everyone in the universe has a camera in their phone, so no matter what I do there’s a good chance it’ll wind up posted on Facebook somewhere.  Even if I want to keep some illicit activity a secret, all it takes is one photo-tag and everyone I know has found me out.  I can’t do anything too dastardly, even if I wanted to—because there’s no way to keep it a secret from my loved ones anymore.

Privacy is disappearing, and quickly—and I agree that this is difficult, painful, and disruptive to our lives.  But if we ever really got there—I mean really got there, where privacy truly was a thing of the past, and no one could keep any secrets anymore….well, would that be so bad?

Published by Malgayne

Community Manager at Google. Formerly at Sourcebits, Spark Plug Games, Zynga, and Wowhead.com. I like chiptunes and hefeweizen.

9 thoughts on “Facebook Privacy and Mind-Reading

  1. A very well written post, as always Casey. I, too, have thought that this world would be a utopia in the presence of mass-mind reading abilities.

    I don’t think people are afraid of not having their privacy, I think it’s just the older (than me) generations are afraid of the change. All their lives they’ve had complete privacy, in most of their endeavors, not just the illicit ones. They grew accustom to it, and now it’s changing.

  2. Interesting thoughts. Curiously enough I never have thought of a utopia based on no one being able to keep any secrets, but then A) I’m one of those misanthropes who genuinely enjoys people not knowing things he doesn’t think concerns them and B) I don’t think that most of our world problems are based on people not keeping secrets or not understanding each other. The worst disagreements, it seems to me, come from people who genuniely do understand each other and at best still disagree and at worst hate each other all the more for their understanding. And that’s not even touching on the fact that people as a group have a remarkable ability to judge (or commit crimes) in the face of extenuating circumstances – like hipocracy, or idiocy.

    As for Facebook, I’m of two minds. On the one hand I’m still in control of exactly how much of my private information Facebook has (and one look at my profile will tell you that they don’t have much) and with that in mind I don’t suppose I really mind Facebook’s presumably legal (by which I mean I’m not aware that they’re breaking any laws) marketing strategy. On the other hand hand not having any control over what they do with my private, personal information *and* not knowing who is getting ahold of it is definately something with which I take issue. Of course that’s not just a Facebook issue, you’ll find similar issues anytime your private information gets out onto the internet, but in the context of Facebook’s privacy policies I think it’s a potentially dangerous thing. It’s entirely possible that Facebook is allowing people to get this information who will do nothing good with it and even if that is not the case, you have to deal with third party connections (ie it’s possible that the people who got the information from Facebook will give it to people who will do nothing good with it). At best that sort of thing leads to irritating spam e-mail campaigns. At worst it leads to people getting killed. The bottom line is I have no control and no information that can lead me to make informed decisions about the matter other than basic principles about what information I want to put up where which may not even work if Facebook changes their policy after my information is already up. I have a problem with that. I have a huge problem with that.

  3. I agree about the part about advertising suited to my needs. If I need a new phone I’d rather ser an ad for a phone than an ad for diapers.

    The part I don’t like though, is the part where they basically own you. I don’t want a facebook account, but I’m pretty much forced to have one, I don’t want that to mean that facebook also owns my ass.

  4. You said: “Now I’ll be the first to recognize that Facebook trying to profit off of my personal information without informing me is serious bad news. I disapprove whole-heartedly of this behavior. But in general, the concept of using my personal preferences in order to better market to me things I might be interested in? That doesn’t bother me in the least.”

    The problem is that these are two distinctly different things. Using your submitted information – with your consent – to make a more personalized experience across the social web is one thing, and something, ideally, that you would opt-in for (instead of FB’s current policy, which was implement, then force people to opt-out).

    The profiting, on the other hand, is part of the problem. You don’t give FB that information for them to use – they’ve been notoriously sketchy about changing privacy policies so that suddenly — all the information you’d previously updated was now their property, even if you took it down. Tim’s right: the problem is that you are uploading information under one set of terms, and those terms change.

    Don’t get me wrong – I am fully aware of all the information that exists online about me, and my FB profile is very carefully curated – but at the same time, I don’t upload photos with the understanding that they’re for the internet. If I wanted that, I’d upload them to flickr (and do!). This is just for my friends and I, and I privacy-lock it accordingly. When facebook changed how people could share your info and didn’t provide clear ways of how to stop that, that was a problem. They’re improving things now – transparency in business practices is always a good thing – but they have a big deficit to fill. The problem is that we’re too reliant on FB. I see it as a glorified phone book, and honestly it’s a way to always contact someone (even if you lose their email, you can reach them via FB, etc)

  5. Curiously enough, I’m kind of reacting in the exact opposite way as these comments.

    Obviously, there is something legally and morally questionable about profiting off of things I have put on the internet without my explicit consent or me getting a cut (even if those things are as simple as my e-mail address), but I see a lot of people pointing at “I need to consciously opt out of Facebook sharing my information with its partner websites” and going “See?! They have cameras in your shower!”

    I’m being facetious, but I feel like the onus is on the accuser to draw the line between Facebook trying to market more effectively (and therefore reap more profits) using somewhat suspect methods and a complete collapse (or at least impending collapse) of the concept of privacy. It seems kind of like someone going “We can’t condone euthanasia, or else we’re going to start harvesting anyone over 65 for their organs!” Maybe you can draw the line there, but it has not yet been done to my satisfaction, and it’s pretty dang far from self evident.

    On the flip side, the idea of mind reading being a Utopian idea is something I strongly disagree with. Are we talking about just a lack of privacy? Or are we talking about having an idea of the mindstates of everyone around you? Is there an effective range?

    Maybe with a very limited range, but too much farther, and it seems like your entire life would just being like watching a heart wrenching infomercial about children in Indonesia with facial deformities. There’s always going to be someone who’s in a really bad place, and nothing that you can do can stop that/block it out. I’m all for inspiring empathy, but can you imagine trying to be a nurse in a hospital like that?

    Maybe I’m just attaching to the wrong aspect of this thought experiment.

    1. I’m not really all that concerned with Facebook making money in a presumably legal fashion. What I can and do take issue with is Facebook’s irresponsible (on the face of it) use of private information.
      Consider: As a society we have decided that personal information, particularly personal information that can be used to identify someone, is something that deserves strict and strigent protection. That is not just my opinion. Medical records, for example, are so well protected that practically the only way for a third party to get ahold of them is via subpoena. I should know, being a medical professional who routinely goes through a ridiculous rigamorole to protect this information exactly because it can be used to identify the patient. That’s only one example. I’m sure a lawyer could say a few words about confidentiality, for instance.

      Now we have not come to this collective decision for no reason. In the wrong hands such information can mean financial ruin and even death. I’ll grant you that those are worst case scenarios, but take it from someone with first hand experience, the worst case is less uncommon than you might think.

      So in terms of Facebook, we have an organization that A) collects personal information under one set of usage rules and then changes those rules, forcing users to opt out (after the damage is done, I might add) B) doing things with that personal information that under any other circumsantces would be grossly illegal and unquestionably reprehensible. Bear in mind that we’re talking about information that under almost any other circumstance in which it is given is protected under pain of death by litigation.

      Now I’m not for a moment going to take away from the responsibility of the user putting his information out there in the first place, nor the third parties receiving this information. Ultimately if something bad does happen those two parties are much more responsible than Facebook will ever be. That doesn’t mean, though that I don’t have a problem with Facebook futzing with its privacy practices and then altering them as a fait accompli.

      It’s not about the money. It’s not even about the impending collapse of privacy (cause this isn’t going to make or break it). It’s people doing things that they really shouldn’t do and doing it in a manner that is, at best, shady. Facebook can and should be called out on that if you ask me.

      1. You know, this is distinctly colored in my mind by the fact that the user put up his information in the first place under a policy that said “This is our policy at the moment, but we reserve the right to change it at any time in the future without asking you.” It’s not like users weren’t on notice that the privacy policy could change in ways they wouldn’t like. Knowing that risk (or more likely not caring enough to make themselves aware of it in fact), they decided to put the information up anyway. My sympathy is … limited.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: