Online privacy is a complicated issue made even more difficult by the wealth of information we post. Random thoughts, photos, location check-ins, they’re all part of our social universe. And there are some real issues worth discussing. Unfortunately, almost any real discussion about privacy either fuels or is fueled by paranoid delusions of The Government or The Company grabbing all your data and using it for nefarious purposes. Like powering a moon laser to destroy New Zealand or trying to sell you something.
Here’s the latest bit of paranoia-masking-itself-as-journalism. Yesterday, the Washington Post ran an article with the ominous headline “Social tracker: It knows where you are, when you’re there, and when you’ll be back.” And it starts the article with this terrifying statement:
The U.S. government can track where you are, who you’re with, what you look like, and where you’ll likely be next thanks to a tool created by defense contractor Raytheon.
That’s right, the government is watching you. Yes, you. They’re going to know everything about you thanks to some powerful tool being developed by a company evil enough to call itself a defense contractor. They are going to pick your name out of the Random List of Names (I’d say telephone book but I haven’t seen one of those in ages) and start tracking you everywhere you go. Every move you make, every step you take, they’ll be singing a song by The Police.
In this age of new-journalism, which we could easily call not-journalism, it’s no surprise to see sensational blog titles and misleading angles to stories. It’s just a shame when there could be an actual, fruitful discussion about issues if we could just all calm down. Case in point: our fun Washington Post article.
This is an old story. Not a recycled story that got another news cycle, but somehow an old story that is just now getting covered. Maybe it’s because Raytheon is trying to sell their solution to someone. Maybe because some disgruntled employee leaked the video that triggered the wave of coverage. But if you dive into the details of the solution or watch the video, some things should jump out at you. Things like:
- The video talks about scraping data from Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Gowalla. If you don’t know that last one then that might be because it ceased operating in March, 2012.
- The video shows some screens filled with data that are then condensed into presentable bits. If you pause on any of the screens of data you will discover that the scary screen of data has 1 data point from 2006, 4 from 2009, and 1 from 2010. Maybe there are more, but if you’re looking to track me down three years in the past, well, quite frankly, I’m more concerned that you have a time machine than that you have access to my social graph.
- They run through a scenario where they track an employee of Raytheon. An employee of Raytheon. In other words, someone who they can get access to their social graph as opposed to purely public data. My employer knows where I’ll be most days. And they know what I look like. I don’t find that scary because I don’t wear a tinfoil hat.
- Oh, and in tracking this employee of Raytheon they come up with the amazing conclusion that this employee goes to the gym during the week at 6am. So you could totally track him down. They even tell you which day and time is best. What don’t they tell you? Which gym. I’ve been to Dallas and I can assure you there are more than one gym in the entire DFW area. If you’re going to scout out every gym on Mondays and Wednesdays at 6am to find this Raytheon employee, I’m pretty sure you’ll need thousands of people or one person thousands of weeks. Either way, how about you just email him instead?
Bottom line: there isn’t anything new here. Quite the opposite. So why is this a story being covered by dozens of media outlets in addition to the Washington Post?
Because it fuels your paranoia. The story that someone is following you on social media gets clicks. Even if it isn’t accurate.
Now, what is accurate here is the real issue of people thinking through the data that they publish in a public matter. There’s an issue in how social networks create the Informal Tone beast that encourages us to share information we wouldn’t normally share. There’s an issue with the privacy and control paradox that has shown the more privacy controls we give to social media users, regardless of their effectiveness, the more users will share private information. There’s an issue with removing social content once it gets published. But those aren’t going to be discussed as long as we’re made afraid for a few seconds that someone is going to find out we went to the gym three years ago but spins it like we’re going to be stalked next week.
So here’s my long-standing, still-effective two part privacy advice for all social media privacy issues:
1. If you read an article/blog/whatever about social media and privacy, pretend the facts it presents are completely fake and then figure out if the article matters to you.
2. No matter what the privacy settings say, if you’re concerned about something you posted on a social platform with hundreds of millions of users on it being discovered by the general public then just don’t post it. Use privacy settings but don’t rely on them.