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My Decision to Disconnect – Part 2

Now that it’s been 3+ months since I left Facebook, I figured it might be a good idea to share some additional thoughts on the matter!

[Pros]

  • Less distractions.
  • Triggered me to sit down and analyze all of the different ways I’m being tracked; which has allowed me to start mitigating them more effectively.
  • Increased feeling of privacy, reduced feeling of “I’m being watched” to some extent.

[Cons]

  • On a few occasions, I’ve had people come up to me with assumptions that I had “seen something on Facebook” when I hadn’t.  This hasn’t really caused much heartburn, however, unless it’s in the context of a large social gathering.
  • It’s become somewhat more difficult to plan & stay “in-the-loop” for events; but this is relatively minor.
  • There is somewhat of a ‘suspicious’ or ‘weird’ factor associated with telling new people that you don’t have a Facebook account.

[Additional Thoughts]

Humans are social creatures.  I see nothing unnatural about going to a bar, meeting someone interesting, and then sharing bits of personal information with them.  For the most part, I would consider myself to be an open book when it comes to person-to-person interactions.  There is something to be said though about how Facebook (and other, similar companies like Snapchat, Google, Skype) do their business.  Let me start off by saying that I have no problem with the idea of a public profile – it’s a good tool to find people who have similar interests to yourself.  Using the content of a public profile for advertising purposes is not a bad thing (in my mind).  For example – if I publish for the world to see that I value privacy, I would have no gripes with someone sending me advertisements for the FSF, the EFF, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Open Whisper Systems, etc.

There are things that I personally prefer to keep private, however – which is why I wouldn’t actively share them on a ‘public’ profile.

Here are a few examples of this:

  • When I’m having a “one-on-one” chat with someone, that information should be private between the two parties.  There shouldn’t be a corporation filtering through the private chat, searching for key words and trying to advertise to me (and my friends) based on that.  This would be comparable to me sitting in the privacy of my own home, having a dinner conversation with a friend – but with a recording device on the table feeding everything back to Facebook.  If a company is using terms like “send Bob a message”; it should be just that – a message being sent to Bob.  If they want to listen in on the conversations themselves for advertising purposes, it should be specified as something like “send Bob, Facebook, and our advertisers a message”.  I know it’s implicit that Facebook will get the message, just because it’s their website / servers – but there is a difference between “Facebook as a medium of transport” and “Facebook as a recipient”.
  • When browsing the web, I would consider this to be similar with real-life interactions with corporations.  For example, shopping on Amazon might be compared to shopping at a mall.  Reading Google News might be compared to reading a newspaper.  Browsing music online might be compared to attending a concert or listening to the radio.  Doing Wikipedia searches might be compared to going to a library and researching a topic.  Doing Google searches might be compared to a less formal form of research like talking to family/friends or reading magazines.  It’s clear that depending on the real-life context, you may have different expectations of privacy in different scenarios:
    • I’m a girl and I purchase a pregnancy test at Target, my expectation would be that the purchase would not be shared with my friends, family, co-workers, and other acquaintances.
    • If I get a prescription (or non-prescribed) drug for a mental illness or a sexually transmitted disease from a pharmacy, my expectation would be that this information would not be openly shared with my friends, family, co-workers, and other acquaintances.
    • Perhaps I see a high-profile crime on TV, and from curiosity (or perhaps from a desire to better protect myself from being the victim of such a crime) I go to pick up some newspapers / books that describe how the person committed the crime from a local convenience store or library.  In general, I don’t believe my purchases and/or what I’m researching should be subject to scrutiny.  Period.  Many things can be spun to look bad / incriminating in the right light.  When you’ve got people second-guessing themselves while they’re taking perfectly legitimate actions  for fear of it being taken out of context, I believe at that point you’ve violated a person’s privacy to the extent that it should be illegal.
  • When I’m not actively using an app or device for it’s stated/advertised purpose, the app / device should (generally) not be doing things that are not advertised features.  For example – when I’ve got my phone sitting on the table, unless I’ve triggered a recording on my phone manually – my phone should not be recording audio via it’s microphone.  Social media apps should not be using my microphone to record verbal conversations for analysis unless that’s something they’re openly advertising.  This general principle should apply to other things (like Google Home, Amazon Echo) as well.  When those devices are not actively being addressed, they should not be recording anything beyond what is necessary to detect the trigger keywords (e.g. “Alexa” or “Ok, Google”) unless that’s something they’re advertising as a feature.  While I guess it’s not “false advertisement” to do things beyond what it advertised – it does seem deceptive.  When you market an app as a messenger, allowing for you to stay in touch with your friends – then that’s what it should do.
    • This is a somewhat difficult topic.  Here’s a quick (albeit one-sided) thought experiment though – Lets say I went to a store, into the ‘doll’ aisle and purchased an item being advertised as a “snuggly teddy bear”.  I put the snuggly teddy bear in my child’s room, only to discover months later that the snuggly teddy bear actually has hardware in it that allows for it to record audio/video that I was otherwise unaware of.  On top of that, lets say that it’s discovered that when the snuggly teddy bear detects that everyone in the near vicinity is sleeping, it will start broadcasting subliminal messages that try and get you to purchase more products from the same corporation that sells the teddy bear.  Now lets say that I look at a pamphlet that came with the teddy bear, and discover that there is some mention of audio/video recording as well as advertising capabilities, but that it’s in the fine print towards the end of the pamphlet.  The large majority of the pamphlet is just pictures of little kids hugging teddy bears and having tea parties; with no visual or written indication that the teddy bear is anything but an innocent doll.
    • Should I be mad?  Was I deceived?  If so, I think there are parallels that can be drawn for a lot of mainstream apps… where is the line?  If an app’s stated purpose is to serve as a messenger – and the app’s product page on the app store is a bunch of images of video chats, text chats, and people making audio calls – then shouldn’t most of it’s resource usage (CPU cycles, RAM, Bandwidth usage) be dedicated towards that type of messaging?  Note that I am not just talking about local resource usage, but I would also be including resource usage that’s occurring on the actual “cloud” servers and such.  If that’s not the case, is it really even a messenger – or should it be advertised as something else in order to be more honest?  Does the fact that it’s free make any difference?

As it stands now, I don’t believe there are strong enough laws / regulations in place in order to provide similar levels of privacy online to parallel the instances in real life that we might expect it.  I think some of the solution might be to force more transparency.  Here’s what I mean by this (although I’m not really sure where the line is between ‘this is way too extreme’ vs ‘this is reasonable’):

  • When you set permissions on social media sites, they tend to be based around allowing or disallowing people or groups of people from seeing your personal information.  When you’re setting these permissions, however, it’s not made abundantly clear that regardless of how you set those permissions; your information is still shared with the social-media companies themselves, as well as to any person or company that is willing to pay for the information.  When you’re setting permissions, perhaps there should be an obvious banner or something stating this…
  • When you send ‘private’ messages on many social media sites, it’s not made abundantly clear (without looking at the Terms of Service / Privacy Policy) that it’s not really ever equivalent to a “real-life” private chat, but that once again you’ve now got the social media site as well as all of the people / companies that are willing to pay involved in the chat as well.  When you’re sending people ‘private’ messages on social media, there should be some sort of indication within the actual messenger (and not just hidden back in the Terms of Service or Privacy Policy) to make it clear that it’s not just a chat between you and your friend.
  • When you give a social-media app permissions to things like your microphone and camera, the general assumption is that those permissions are going to be used only in the context of things like audio calls and video calls.  If those permissions are being used for anything outside of that (such as listening for keywords in order to build a better profile of a person, for the purpose of advertising to them), then that should be advertised explicitly.
  • In general, an app’s resources should be primarily spent on the app’s advertised functionality.  If that’s not the case, then the advertising should be changed to state as such.

Overall, I’m glad I disconnected from Facebook – and I’m glad that I’m on track to disconnect from Google in the next 6 months or so.  Perhaps I will do a third follow-up on this thread when that occurs.  The weirdest part about this whole thing for me is that I use to argue the other side of things all the time.

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