PRISM: Share with the CIA – and Facebook!


Going out for a pizza? Who wants to know?

There’s been a joke going around the net over the last couple of weeks, inspired by the PRISM revelations. The picture above is just one of the examples – variants include replacing the CIA with the NSA, or adding the two together so that it says, effectively ‘Share with Friends, the CIA and the NSA’ and so on. It’s a pretty good joke – and spot on about the nature of the PRISM programme (and indeed the equivalents elsewhere in the world, such as the UK’s Communications Data Bill, the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’), but ultimately it misses one key element from the equation. It should also include ‘share with Facebook’…

Share with only me, the CIA, the NSA and FaceBook!

Something that seems to be forgotten pretty much every time is that whenever you put something on Facebook, no matter how tightly and precisely you select your ‘privacy’ settings, Facebook themselves always get to see your stuff. It’s never ‘just you’, or ‘just you and your close friends’: Facebook themselves are always there. That means a lot of different things – at the very least that they will use that information to build up your profile and to choose who is going to target advertising at you. It might be used directly for Facebook themselves to target products and services at you. It might mean that they put you on various lists of people of a certain kind to receive mailings – lists that could then be used for other purposes, potentially sold (perhaps not now, but in the future?) or even could be hacked…

Data is vulnerable

…and that is point that shouldn’t be forgotten. If you put something on Facebook, or if Facebook infers something from the information that you put up, that information is potentially vulnerable. Now it’s easy to worry about spies and spooks – and then to dismiss that worry because you’re not really the kind of person that spies and spooks would care about – but there are others to whom the kind of information you put on Facebook could be valuable. Criminals intent on identity theft. Other criminals looking for targets in other ways (if you’re going out for a pizza, that means you’re not at home…. burglary opportunity?). Insurers wanting to know whether they should put up your premiums (aha, they often go out for pizzas – doesn’t sound like a healthy diet to me! Up with the premiums!), potential employers checking you out (if you’re going out for a pizza at an unsuitable time of day, you might be an unsuitable employee) and so on.

Don’t imagine your ‘privacy’ settings really imply privacy…

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ‘share’ anything on Facebook (or Google, or any other system online, because what happens with Facebook happens just as much with others), but that we should be a touch more aware of the situation. The PRISM saga has highlighted that what we share can be seen by the authorities – and has triggered off quite a lot of concern. That concern is, in my opinion, only a small part of the story. What the authorities do is only one aspect – and for most people a far less important one than the rest of the story. Having your insurance premiums raised, having credit refused, becoming a victim of identity-related crimes, being socially embarrassed or humiliated, becoming a victim of cyber-bullying etc are much more common for most of us. What we do online can contribute to all of these – and we should be a bit more aware of it.

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