Saturday, May 8, 2010

Why Facebook is like your psycho ex

Matt McKeon's
There's been lots of really interesting articles about the privacy changes in Facebook. My personal favourite is Matt McKeon's excellent infographic showing your (private) data spreading out further and further. (See left for mini version.)

The thing that I don't quite get is how upset every one seems to be about this.

No, hear me out. I'm not just being a smug security researcher.

I caught the 6 o'clock news on TV a few weeks ago, and tried in vain not to laugh during the segment on THE DANGERS OF TEEN SEXTING. Basically, for those of you who haven't heard, sexting is the practice of sending sexually-charged text messages and photos. According to the news segment, it is a plague upon our youth, who are too foolish to realize that those naked pictures they sent to their significant others might eventually wind up on The Internet. The segment was so over-the-top that it was begging to be parodied by some comedy group, but the take home message wasn't wrong: anything you send can be shared, so don't send stuff you don't want shared.

So, when we're seeing news where smug adults talk about how teenagers don't know any better about protecting their data (or at least their naked breasts) from public scrutiny, I'm not really sure how adults can justify being horrified and shocked that their Facebook data isn't as private as they thought it was. Tell your children not to record anything they don't want available for all time, but OMG FACEBOOK IS SHARING MY DATA?!!!

I hope teenagers everywhere are laughing.

So here's what I recommend: Treat web sites much like you would potential ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends. You may want to trust them now, but you can never be sure when they might go psycho and write your number in bathroom stalls and share your naked pictures with the Internet. It is, of course, safest to never share anything... but we're not wired that way. People like sharing! It'd be a bit of a lonely life if you never shared anything, and nowadays sharing includes sharing online.

But websites are about as trustworthy as the worst psycho ex: you never know when policies will change, the website will get bought out by someone who has different policies and now controls your data, or someone will exploit a security hole in the website. At least ex-friends aren't usually bought by megacorps who profit from selling all their mementos of your relationship. And probably, unlike websites, 64% of your friends don't have a security flaw.

My sister has a funny story about doing a security check for a previous job that went something like this:

The guy who was doing my clearance was old enough to have children my age, and I sort of think he might have because he was getting increasingly uncomfortable about the questions he had to ask me. When he got down to ones like, "have you ever had a threesome?" he reminded me that, "you don't have to tell me if you aren't embarrassed about it. We only care if you can be blackmailed. If you're not embarrassed, it doesn't matter."

So there you have it: As long as you're not embarrassed by the stuff you share online, it doesn't matter if it gets out.

Or if you prefer dramatic news segment style: SHARE BUT BEWARE. ;)

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