Saturday, June 09, 2012

Big Brother, Big Sister

OK, time for an unscientific poll. Anyone who believes that their personal privacy is sacrosanct, that the only information others should have is what you allow them to have, that no one person except yourself should be the gatekeeper of all the data that exists about yourself, raise your hands. OK, you can put them down.

Next question. All of those who use Facebook, or have an iPhone and use Siri, raise your hands. Now, if you raised them for both the first question and for the second, boy, do I have bad news for you.

First, there's Facebook. If the internet was the first big wave of interconnectivity (computer to computer), and the world wide web the second (a common language all could search and access), then Facebook may well be the third (person to person). Unless you've been buried under a log for the past 10 years, you know that it allows people to post stuff about themselves, and see likewise from "friends."  What's easy to miss is that it is a closed universe: you can't search into it from outside, and those inside hit roadblocks on the way out as well.

In actual use, that may seem like a good thing. Do a Google search for yourself, and while you may get any number of hits, none will be from Facebook. That means that all those pictures of you drunk at that party, or you posting the latest off color joke, or you espousing a political view opposite that of your boss, are not readily available to those not in your orbit. So far, so good. Private life here, public life there, and never the twain will meet.

But not so fast. Just this past week we saw how it doesn't work out quite that way. A front page story in The New York Times told the cautionary tale of one Nick Bergus. Seems Nick has a Facebook page, and posted a link to a funny ad he found on Amazon for a 55-gallon drum of personal lubricant.  What he didn't fully appreciate was a little clause deep in the pages of legal gobbledygook we all scroll past to click on the "I agree" button when setting up almost any account these days. That clause gave Facebook the okeydokey to take his "like" and turn it into an ad. And so it wasn't long before his face was married to the product and showed up on others' pages as an advertisement, noting his endorsement as a selling point.

With that in mind it's worth also noting that deep in the filing documents of Facebook's IPO, amid all the discussion about risks and markets, is an acknowledgement that while the public now has a piece of the action, they still don't have much of a say: Mark Zukerberg still controls 57% of the voting rights for the company. So I hope that Nick likes his lubricant: the policy that links him to it isn't something the shareholders will be discussing anytime soon.

And then there's our gal Siri. Apple's voice assistant is the "it" girl of the tech world. But can she keep a secret? Is what you tell her just between you and her? Not so much. The reason is that, once again, as stated in the agreement you clicked on happily when you got your new iPhone 4s, "By using Siri or Dictation, you agree and consent to Apple's and its subsidiaries' and agents' transmission, collection, maintenance, processing, and use of this information, including your voice input and User Data, to provide and improve Siri, Dictation, and other Apple products and services." In other words, whatever you say, be it an address, a birthday, an appointment, a phone or account number, goes into the maw of Apple for their use down the road. In response, this past week IBM announced it is blocking the service in its facilities. Of course, the Ghost of Job would never do anything nefarious with such information. Would it?

The bottom line is that if you use the internet in any way, from buying a product to checking the weather, to some extent you are living in a fishbowl. Companies see what you're doing, track your interests, and respond in ways calculated to reel you in. You can argue it's the price of doing business. Or you can argue the price of doing business is too high. In either case, like what you like, but just be ready to like it out loud.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has never posted anything on Facebook except this column. It also appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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