Why I left Facebook

August 4, 2011

in Geek stuff, Internet matters, Politics, Psychology, Security

I have been worried about Facebook for years. I worry about how personal information on users is their most valuable asset, and the ways in which they may seek to profit from it. More generally, I worry about the unintended consequences of creating massive searchable databases on social interactions.

What actually prompted me to ‘deactivate’ (not ‘delete’ yet) was two things.

Excessive time demands

First, Facebook is too time-demanding. People expect me to keep up to speed on their many postings, despite how there are hundreds or even thousands of status updates that appear every day. If you advertise your event on Facebook and I miss it completely, it is probably because I was trying to get some reading done, or enjoying a walk and a cup of coffee, or dealing with my neverending flood of unanswered email and so I missed the status update message or invitation for a few days.

If you really want me to know about something, you must at least send me a text or an email. Putting notice on Facebook (or Twitter, or your own website) is not a sufficiently attention-grabbing action to ensure that I will see it.

As I am writing this, I am ignoring a sizeable collection of projects that are in need of attention. I should be working on finding an apartment in Toronto, packing up my current apartment, and making plans for how to move. I should be researching possible doctoral programs, working on my research proposal, and corresponding with possible references and supervisors. I should also be reading various books from various stacks of semi-read tomes, refining my low carbon mutual fund idea, improving my chess, getting exercise, exploring some elements of Ottawa that are still unknown to me, planning a trip to Washington D.C., planning a trip to New Orleans, writing articles and letters to editors, processing and uploading photos, going out and taking new photos. I should be taking university courses, learning practical skills, responding to letters, searching for photographic gigs, learning to drive, joining clubs, going camping, and improving my data backup regime.

All of those tasks are better uses of time than Facebook.

Privacy

Second, I am worried about facial recognition. The only barrier to it becoming absolutely ubiquitous seems to be the availability of data on our faces. The cameras are already out there, and the software and the computing power to turn pixels representing faces into names are coming inevitably.

Someone with a lot of determination can dig around the internet and probably find dozens of photos of me to feed into a facial recognition algorithm. While I was on Facebook, however, this process was simplified to the point of easy automation. In thousands of photos, I had been specifically identified and even had the region of the photo containing my face marked.

Still not too isolated

So far, I have been glad to be off that particular grid. Anyone who actually wants to contact me has a wide variety of ways to do so. My email address and cellphone number are both on the ‘contact me’ page of my blog, and my blog comes up immediately when you Google my name. If that is too much work for a person to go through, it seems fair to say that they didn’t really want to contact me in the first place.

I don’t want to delete my Facebook account completely because it does have some value to me as an archive. Nearly all my photos from Oxford are in there, with tags and comments affixed. If Facebook provided a way to download all that as an elegant, accessible archive that can be used offline I would be happy to do so. I doubt, however, that they will ever provide such a tool. All their plans hinge on attracting people to the site and making them visit as often as possible. Helping them untangle themselves and walk away with whatever data they find valuable runs completely counter to that. Facebook actually lets you download your photos easily in quite a good archive format.

I will miss the chance to see what distant friends are up to easily, and to have the occasional fortuitous bit of contact with them. I will try to remember to send an out-of-the-blue email every once in a while.

P.S. I left LinkedIn too, but who cares about LinkedIn?

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave August 4, 2011 at 9:57 am

Hi Milan. An elegant, accessible archive–go to Account -> General -> ‘Download a copy of your Facebook data’. It’s a zip archive. I’m not sure about the tags or comments, though.

Milan August 4, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Thanks. I am briefly back on Facebook for archive extraction purposes.

BuddyRich August 5, 2011 at 6:37 am

All of your reasons are why I never joined in the first place. The facial recognition is especially scary. I remember the first time I saw a similar technology in action in iPhoto ’09 a couple of years back and was impressed at just how good it was.

However even without an account on Facebook, photos of me have still been tagged, they just don’t link to a Facebook profile. I think there was a way to turn it off, but you could still be tagged in other peoples photos, which effectively meant you couldn’t stop it.

. August 5, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Unfortunately for the photo averse, Facebook has made it easier for people to tag their friends. Back in December, Facebook announced plans for facial-recognition technology that would facilitate the tagging process. Facebook said it would examine newly uploaded photos and compare them to other photos in which you or your friends are tagged in order to make tagging suggestions. In recent months, that facial recognition-based tag suggestion feature was turned on by default, prompting concerns from security experts and regulators alike. Most recently, German data protection officials requested that Facebook disable its facial recognition software and delete any previously stored data.

dp August 5, 2011 at 10:39 pm
Milan August 5, 2011 at 10:41 pm

Beards foil biometric sensors. Mine in this photo also makes me look more like a Scottish terrier.

. August 10, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Anonymous has vowed to destroy Facebook on November 5th (which should ring a bell). Citing privacy concerns and the difficulty involved in deleting a Facebook account, Anonymous hopes to ‘kill Facebook,’ the ‘medium of communication [we] all so dearly adore.’ They continued, ‘It is not a battle over the future of privacy and publicity. It is a battle for choice and informed consent. … Facebook keeps saying that it gives users choices, but that is completely false. It gives users the illusion of and hides the details away from them “for their own good” while they then make millions off of you. When a service is “free,” it really means they’re making money off of you and your information.’

. August 10, 2011 at 5:24 pm

“Facebook has added a new type of story to its News Feed today: if more than one of your friends post about the same topic, and it has a Page on the social network, the posts will be grouped under a Posted About story, even if your friends don’t explicitly tag the Page. It turns out Facebook is using natural language processing on status updates as well as the headlines of posted links to figure out if a topic mentioned has a corresponding Page, and then searches to see if your other friends have done so as well.

. September 27, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Marketers have vastly more information about potential consumers than ever before. Every time you use a loyalty card you surrender personal information. Every time you do a Google search or hit the ìlikeî button on Facebook, you surrender yet more. Google and Facebook protect personal privacy, but they also make money by selling generic information to advertisers. Professional data-miners use electronic data to create a detailed picture of what you have bought in the past (ìhistory sniffingî) and how you bought it (ìbehaviour sniffingî). They can then draw your attention to products they think you might want to buy in the future. Smartphones can tell you that there is a shop nearby that stocks just the thing you have been looking for.

. October 18, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Max is a 24 year old law student from Vienna with a flair for the interview and plenty of smarts about both technology and legal issues. In Europe there is a requirement that entities with data about individuals make it available to them if they request it. That’s how Max ended up with a personalized CD from Facebook that he printed out on a stack of paper more than a thousand pages thick (see image below). Analysing it, he came to the conclusion that Facebook is engineered to break many of the requirements of European data protection. He argues that the record Facebook provided him finds them to be in flagrante delicto.

The logical next step was a series of 22 lucid and well-reasoned complaints that he submitted to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (Facebook states that European users have a relationship with the Irish Facebook subsidiary).

. October 18, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Facebook Is Building Shadow Profiles of Non-Users

As noted previously, Max Schrems of Europe Versus Facebook has filed numerous complaints about Facebook’s data collection practices. One complaint that has failed to draw much scrutiny regards Facebook’s creation of Shadow Profiles. ‘This is done by different functions that encourage users to hand personal data of other users and non-users to Facebook… (e.g. synchronizing mobile phones, importing personal data from e-mail providers, importing personal information from instant messaging services, sending invitations to friends or saving search queries when users search for other people on facebook.com). This means that even if you don’t use it, you may already have a profile on Facebook.

. October 24, 2011 at 12:47 pm
. November 11, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Under the Gun, Facebook Relents on Privacy

Facebook is reportedly ready to settle a privacy complaint with the FTC, agreeing to get consent from users before making private data public and to performing privacy audits for the next 20 years.

At issue is Facebook’s decision in December 2009 to make sweeping and retroactive changes to user profiles, including requiring all users to have their profile images, cities of residence, and expressed interests made public.

Facebook’s “simplified” privacy settings also changed users’ default settings to make status updates fully public. Other settings that had been private or limited to only “Friends” became visible to “Friends of Friends” and to third-party developers. Even though users could manually change many of these defaults, most (reportedly about 80%) did not.

In May 2010, Facebook further required that “likes,” employment information and schools attended be linked to public pages, prompting privacy groups to file unfair trade complaints against Facebook with the FTC. Those complaints, and increasing concern from Congress and federal agencies over online privacy issues, eventually led Facebook to this settlement.

. November 30, 2011 at 7:11 am

Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook founder admits ‘bunch of mistakes’ amid privacy u-turn

Mark Zuckerberg has admitted Facebook has made “a bunch of mistakes” on privacy and agreed to overhaul its policy to make all major changes opt-in, following regulatory criticism from the American Federal Trade Commission.

. November 30, 2011 at 7:12 am

Facebook and privacy

Walking the tightrope

A FEW years ago, Facebook was forced to retreat from a new service called Beacon. It tracked what the social network’s users were doing elsewhere on the web—which caused a huge fuss because of the loss of personal privacy. At the time, Facebook promised to make strenuous efforts to better protect people’s information.

But apparently the firm has not been trying very hard. On November 29th America’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released the results of an investigation it had conducted of Facebook. They showed that the world’s biggest social network, which now boasts more than 800m users, has been making information public that it had pledged to keep private.

The FTC’s findings come at a sensitive time for Facebook, which is preparing for an initial public offering (IPO) that is almost certain to take place next year. Some recent reports have speculated that the firm may seek a listing as early as next spring, and that it will try to raise a whopping $10 billion in an IPO that would value it at $100 billion. To clear the way for an offering, Facebook badly needs to resolve some of the regulatory tussles over privacy that it has become embroiled in.

Hence the FTC’s announcement, which came as part of a settlement struck between the commission and Facebook. The FTC’s investigation highlighted a litany of instances in which the social network had deceived its users. In what is perhaps the most damning of the findings, the agency documents that Facebook has been sharing people’s personal information with advertisers—a practice its senior executives have repeatedly sworn it does not indulge in. The FTC also says that the firm failed to make photos and videos on deactivated and deleted user accounts inaccessible after promising to do so.

. December 13, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Be careful of what you ask for. That’s a lesson Max Schrems of Vienna, Austria learned the hard way when he sent a formal request to Facebook for a copy of every piece of personal information that the social network had collected on him, as required under European law. After a wait, the 24-year-old law student got what he was seeking: a CD with all his data stored on it — 1,222 files in all. The collection of PDFs was roughly the length of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but told a more mundane story: a record of Schrems’ years-long relationship with the world’s largest social network, including reams of data he had deleted. Now Schrems is pushing Facebook to disclose even more of what it knows.

Milan January 13, 2012 at 9:25 pm

For those who avoid flying, one other benefit of avoiding Facebook is that you have less awareness about how your friends are constantly on vacation in interesting places like Indonesia or Brazil or Budapest.

. February 5, 2012 at 6:14 pm

Opinion
Facebook Is Using You

By LORI ANDREWS
Published: February 4, 2012

LAST week, Facebook filed documents with the government that will allow it to sell shares of stock to the public. It is estimated to be worth at least $75 billion. But unlike other big-ticket corporations, it doesn’t have an inventory of widgets or gadgets, cars or phones. Facebook’s inventory consists of personal data — yours and mine.

Facebook makes money by selling ad space to companies that want to reach us. Advertisers choose key words or details — like relationship status, location, activities, favorite books and employment — and then Facebook runs the ads for the targeted subset of its 845 million users. If you indicate that you like cupcakes, live in a certain neighborhood and have invited friends over, expect an ad from a nearby bakery to appear on your page. The magnitude of online information Facebook has available about each of us for targeted marketing is stunning. In Europe, laws give people the right to know what data companies have about them, but that is not the case in the United States.

. February 7, 2012 at 7:19 pm

“In an email exchange with privacy blogger Dan Tynan, Columbia law professor Eben Moglen referred to Facebook as a ‘man in the middle attack’ — that is, a service that intercepts communication between two parties and uses it for its own nefarious purposes. He said, ‘The point is that by sharing with our actual friends through a web intermediary who can store and mine everything, we harm people by destroying their privacy for them. It’s not the sharing that’s bad, it’s the technological design of giving it all to someone in the middle. That is at once outstandingly stupid and overwhelmingly dangerous.’ Tynan is a critic of Facebook, but he thinks Moglen is overstating the case.”

. February 13, 2012 at 10:37 am

Anti-social networking

I’m in a bit of a quandary. I love socializing online but it seems that as time goes on the big social networking sites are becoming more and more invasive, controlling, exclusive, and downright anti-social. First it was Facebook with its data mining, online tracking, and ridiculously complex privacy options. Did you know that even if you log out of Facebook it is still tracking your every move online? It can even share your surfing activities unless you figure out how to turn that off. And that’s just today’s trick. Tomorrow they will find a new way to collect data about you and you’ll have to go through the same exercise again if you want to protect your privacy.

Then there is Google+ which initially seemed like a much freer alternative to Facebook, until it turned out that it was designed as an “identity service.” With the recent harmonization of the Google privacy policy, that means that they can now track your activities across the entire Googleverse, as well as any page with a +1 button on it. Add to that the idiotic “real name” policy whereby anyone who tries to sign up with an unusual name or pseudonym can be suspended and their other Google services frozen. You could create a hundred spam accounts with “normal” sounding names with no problem but if your parents were hippies and named you Starflower your account will be flagged and you will be asked to submit government-issued ID. That’s like a coffee shop asking for your passport before letting you chat with your friends. It’s draconian and excludes a lot of people who have perfectly legitimate and sometimes life-and-death reasons for not using their legal name online. Moreover, now you cannot even create a Google account without joining Google+ and providing a “real” name. This applies to Gmail, YouTube, Blogger, the entire Googleverse. If you have anything to say that you do not want publicly associated with your legal name, Google is no longer the place to go.

. February 26, 2012 at 5:22 pm
. March 13, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Chinese cyber-spies set up fake Facebook profile to ‘friend’ top NATO officials

An online scam has been exposed in which senior British military and government officials were tricked into becoming Facebook friends with someone masquerading as U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander and lead officer on the Libyan mission, thereby exposing their own personal information to unknown hackers.

Classified briefings suggest the hackers were working from a Chinese government office, the Daily Telegraph reported.

Amusing as it is to see military minds fall for such a simple and seemingly innocuous trick, (a NATO spokesperson said that “discussions/chats/postings on Facebook are of course only about unclassified topics”), another related discovery illustrates the vulnerability to espionage created by social media, and the high stakes in play.

Using similar ploys, Chinese spies are believed to have breached the cyber-defences of the British defence contractor BAE, and over a period of 18 months stolen vast details of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a multinational effort including Canada to create the world’s best fighter jet.

. March 13, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Why Making Facebook Private Won’t Protect You

“Facebook’s privacy settings, such as they are, don’t hold up in the face of prospective employers who demand to see applicants’ profiles. In an MSNBC report, Bob Sullivan found that ‘in Maryland, job seekers applying to the state’s Department of Corrections have been asked during interviews to log into their accounts and let an interviewer watch while the potential employee clicks through wall posts, friends, photos and anything else that might be found behind the privacy wall. … Meanwhile, on the other side of the barbed wire fence, coaches and administrators are forcing student athletes to ‘friend’ them in order to monitor their activity of social sites.”

. April 1, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Protecting Your Passwords and Your Privacy
by Facebook and Privacy on Friday, March 23, 2012 at 5:32am ·

In recent months, we’ve seen a distressing increase in reports of employers or others seeking to gain inappropriate access to people’s Facebook profiles or private information. This practice undermines the privacy expectations and the security of both the user and the user’s friends. It also potentially exposes the employer who seeks this access to unanticipated legal liability.

The most alarming of these practices is the reported incidences of employers asking prospective or actual employees to reveal their passwords. If you are a Facebook user, you should never have to share your password, let anyone access your account, or do anything that might jeopardize the security of your account or violate the privacy of your friends. We have worked really hard at Facebook to give you the tools to control who sees your information.

As a user, you shouldn’t be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job. And as the friend of a user, you shouldn’t have to worry that your private information or communications will be revealed to someone you don’t know and didn’t intend to share with just because that user is looking for a job. That’s why we’ve made it a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.

We don’t think employers should be asking prospective employees to provide their passwords because we don’t think it’s right the thing to do. But it also may cause problems for the employers that they are not anticipating. For example, if an employer sees on Facebook that someone is a member of a protected group (e.g. over a certain age, etc.) that employer may open themselves up to claims of discrimination if they don’t hire that person.

Employers also may not have the proper policies and training for reviewers to handle private information. If they don’t—and actually, even if they do–the employer may assume liability for the protection of the information they have seen or for knowing what responsibilities may arise based on different types of information (e.g. if the information suggests the commission of a crime).

Facebook takes your privacy seriously. We’ll take action to protect the privacy and security of our users, whether by engaging policymakers or, where appropriate, by initiating legal action, including by shutting down applications that abuse their privileges.

While we will continue to do our part, it is important that everyone on Facebook understands they have a right to keep their password to themselves, and we will do our best to protect that right.

— Erin Egan, Chief Privacy Officer, Policy

. April 1, 2012 at 5:51 pm

The Unsocial Network: Privacy Is Staging a Comeback on Facebook
By Alexis Madrigal

Mar 28 2012, 1:27 PM ET

In a stark reversal from how people used to use the social network, more than half of users in a recent study had hidden their friends lists from public view.

Facebook users have dramatically altered their behavior in recent years to make their profiles less public, according to a study presented last week at the 4th IEEE International Workshop on Security and Social Networking.

In March 2010, only 17.2 percent of users hid their friends list. By June 2011, more than half (52.6 percent) did so. Researchers at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University got their data by crawling 1.4 million Facebook profiles from New York City two times, 15 months apart. Then they checked to see how people’s behavior on the site had changed during that interval.

. April 8, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Here’s What Facebook Sends the Cops In Response To a Subpoena

“Facebook already shares its Law Enforcement Guidelines publicly, but we’ve never actually seen the data Menlo Park sends over to the cops when it gets a formal subpoena for your profile information. Now we know. This appears to be the first time we get to see what a Facebook account report looks like. The document was released by the The Boston Phoenix as part of a lengthy feature titled ‘Hunting the Craigslist Killer,’ which describes how an online investigation helped officials track down Philip Markoff. The man committed suicide, which meant the police didn’t care if the Facebook document was published elsewhere, after robbing two women and murdering a third.”

. September 10, 2012 at 5:11 pm

WASHINGTON—A comprehensive and groundbreaking new report released Monday by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project has found that only four users of Facebook derive pleasure of any kind from the popular social networking website.

According to the report, the remainder of the 950 million people registered with Facebook, despite using the site on a regular basis, take no joy in doing so, and in fact feel a profound sense of hopelessness and despair immediately upon logging in.

“An exhaustive analysis of our data indicates that Facebook does indeed have a positive impact on the day-to-day lives of Susannah Brambrink of Milwaukee, Tom Peros of San Diego, Eugene Phipps of Albuquerque, and Karen Fairbanks of rural Missouri,” lead researcher John Elliott said. “But all other users—literally all of them—are overpowered by a deep, nameless sadness when exposed to the site, and apparently only visit it out of some sick, inexplicable compulsion bordering on masochism.”

. September 25, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Despite what the site’s front page may say, Facebook is not a free service. Its users don’t pay with money, they pay with personal information. And the reason Facebook was the most hyped Initial Public Offering in U.S. history – the reason Mark Zuckerberg is one of the richest people on Earth – is because Facebook turns around and leverages personal information to lure advertisers. Those advertisers want to know your marital status so they can sell you wedding dresses and dating site subscriptions; they want to know how old you are so they can sell you used cars and dating site subscriptions; they want to know where you live so they can sell you condos and dating site subscriptions.

. March 11, 2013 at 10:26 pm
. June 23, 2013 at 10:31 pm

Going back to at least 2011, it was believed that Facebook kept “shadow profiles” of users and non-users, accumulating information when users synchronize mobile phones, import personal data from e-mail providers, import personal information from instant messaging services, send invitations to friends or make search queries for other people on Facebook. In early 2012, four members of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations demanded answers from Facebook (PDF) and were told that non-users didn’t have “shadow profiles”, but the contents of the reply were not made public. Just this past Friday, Facebook released an “Important Message” on a data leak they closed, in which information from members’ “shadow profiles” could be obtained.

Hacker News users dug in to find out what was was meant but not written.

From Packet Storm Security: “To sum things up, an information leak in Facebook has highlighted the dangers of hoarding user data. Facebook reacted to the incident in a responsible manner in order to fix the leak. What is not fixed, is their policy.”

. June 23, 2013 at 10:32 pm

If I understand correctly, the Hacker News user “discostrings” is saying that Facebook doesn’t have shadow profiles for people who never joined the service. What they do have is shadowy, normally inaccessible parts of already existing user profiles that contain information the users didn’t themselves type in. Like for example, say your friend synchronizes the address list on his phone with Facebook, and that address list includes your private eMail address, one that you give to friends but didn’t put on your Facebook page. Facebook downloads the Email address and decides that it’s probably you, so it’s then added to the Shadow Profile part of your account.

And apparently, if you downloaded your account, you also got all the information from your friends Shadow Profiles. Not sure why.

. October 6, 2013 at 8:02 pm

All LinkedIn with Nowhere to Go
Ann Friedman

In a jobs economy that has become something of a grim joke, nothing seems quite so bleak as the digital job seeker’s all-but-obligatory LinkedIn account. In the decade since the site launched publicly with a mission “to connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful,” the glorified résumé-distribution service has become an essential stop for the professionally dissatisfied masses. The networking site burrows its way into users’ inboxes with updates spinning the gossamer dream of successful and frictionless advancement up the career ladder. Just add one crucial contact who’s only a few degrees removed from you (users are the perpetual Kevin Bacons in this party game), or update your skill set in a more market-friendly fashion, and one of the site’s 187 million or so users will pluck you from a stalled career and offer professional redemption. LinkedIn promises to harness everything that’s great about a digital economy that so far has done more to limit than expand the professional prospects of its user-citizens.

. February 4, 2014 at 10:17 pm

Keeping Your Data Forever, Even If You Leave

In the olden days, when Facebook was still tussling with MySpace, there was no simple way to delete your Facebook account. Sure, you could deactivate it, but the only way to wipe yourself from the social network’s database was to delete all the content you’d ever posted—by hand—and then email Facebook, sometimes several times, requesting an account deletion (Facebook added a straightforward account deletion option in 2010).

The simmering gripes over this policy sparked into a huge controversy in 2009, when Facebook changed its terms of service to remove a clause that promised that the company could not use your content if you deleted it. Facebook initially said people misunderstood the intent of the change, arguing that it was necessary to keep a user’s message to another available even if they left the service. But the company eventually reverted to its old terms and vowed to allow users to vote on future policy changes.

Some forms of interaction on Facebook, like sending another user a message or posting in a group, are still retained by the company indefinitely even if you delete your account.

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