Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Privacy Illusion

There has been a lot of “sound and fury” about Facebook's privacy policies lately. The big issue seems to be that people believe Facebook has moved from being a place where they can communicate with a close circle of friends to being a public forum where everything they say can be seen by anyone.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. Faced by competition for the social network space by services like Twitter, Facebook has been searching for ways to give advertisers and marketers better ways to communicate with their customers. This has been an ongoing evolution of the Internet since it was opened up to commercialization back in the 90’s.

But it seems to me that the real problem is not Facebook. It is the public perception that you can have privacy on the Internet. By now it should be clear that anything you do or say on the Web is no more private than something you say in a crowded shopping mall.

Most people don’t realize that even their email isn’t really private. Especially if you use a web mail host like Gmail or Hotmail. Electronic mail is sent from server to server over the internet with little to no security. A dedicated hacker or a malevolent network administrator can learn more about your private life than any marketing manager on Facebook.

Of course, there are tools to help solve this problem. Email encryption tools have been available from the earliest days of the Internet, but they aren’t used by many people because they aren’t aware of them and frankly most of them are complicated to set up. But if people were really interested in protecting their privacy they would install these tools on every email client they use.

The issue is that while people wring their hands about privacy, they rarely do more than complain. The truth is most of us have very little understanding of the real issues. If we did we would use the simplest tool available for privacy: If you don’t want people to know something, don’t say it.

So the best advice is to treat Facebook like you would any other public place. Post whatever you want, as long as you are willing to accept the consequences of lots more people seeing it than your friends list.

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