What if Facebook stole your identity?

Summary:No one company (and possibly no government) has ever had the power to shut off an individual's personal connections like Facebook does today.

Imagine if, one day, you log into Facebook and your account is gone. You don't know if it's been deleted, disabled, or hijacked. You just know you're no longer welcome in Facebook's walled garden. How bad would it be?

I've been thinking about this question for a while. Two specific sets of observations and thoughts led to this article, so let's discuss those first.

No one company (and possibly no government) has ever had the power to shut off an individual's personal connections like Facebook does today.

The first observation is how my wife uses Facebook. I'm not a good test case, because I use Facebook like all my other outreach vehicles, as a way to reach my readers (and, once in a while, reconnect with an old friend or look at cute dog and cat pictures).

My wife, on the other hand, has started using Facebook as her social dashboard.

I guess I noticed it this summer, when I realized she checked her Facebook first thing in the morning, not her email. She doesn't just use Facebook to look at cute cat pictures. She uses Facebook to run her social life.

My wife is very active in the local community, and so she has Facebook connections with all of her friends and people in the community. Many of the groups and activities she participates in run their entire online coordination efforts through Facebook.

If she wanted to know what time a meeting is, she checks Facebook. If she wants to know the songs the choir will sing, she checks Facebook. If she wants to make a lunch appointment to visit the fabric or shoe store with a friend, she checks Facebook.

If she lost access to Facebook, she would lose access to her entire community. She'd be cut off from her friends, her social links, and activities. Sure, she could probably reconstruct some phone numbers and such from call logs on her smartphone, but lack of Facebook access would severely curtail her ability to be a member of our community.

So, the first observation was how central Facebook was to my wife's community activities. The second observation came when reading Violet Blue's story here on ZDNet of a browser plug-in developer named Matt Kruse who ran afoul of Facebook.

When Facebook is displeased

Kruse has a plug-in for Chrome called Social Fixer that modifies (at the browser level) how Facebook is displayed. It does things like move games and other annoyances to separate tabs, and allows you to do all sorts of prioritization of communication.

I've never used it, but ZDNet's Jason Perlow has written on it at length as a way to keep your politically crazy friends off your feed.

In any case, Facebook doesn't like Social Fixer and brought down the ban hammer on Kruse with a great big heap of legal threats. They also shut off Social Fixer's Facebook page, cutting him off from users.

As it turns out, Facebook's strike against the plug-in is not what got me thinking. Web services (and providers of all types) have ban hammered add-ons they don't like for years. It sucks, but it's a fact of life.

No, what got me thinking was an issue raised in Kruse's own blog post on the matter.

He describes his rather justifiable fear of Facebook's gigantic legal team and why he decided to capitulate to their demands, even if it nerfed his slick little tool.

What if Facebook cuts off your personal account?

Then he rhetorically asked what might happen if he doesn't comply, and shared this fear: "Even if no legal action comes as a result, they may still take action against my personal account. They could ban me from Facebook because they feel I violate their Terms, making it harder to keep in touch with family and friends." Emphasis is his, not mine.

That's where I put two and two together. Here's someone who is afraid he might get cut off from family and friends. That's a concern I would have considered silly until I saw how intensely my wife relies on Facebook.

That's when I realized how much of an impact it could have if Facebook terminated someone's personal account. And that's when I started wondering what sort of protections consumers have against what would effectively amount to someone losing their online identity and being disconnected from their community, their friends, and their family.

No one company (and possibly no government) has ever had the power to shut off an individual's personal connections like Facebook does today.

Phone company customers who didn't pay their bill would lose their phone number, but they'd be able to correspond by mail, use pay phones, or move somewhere new and get a new phone number.

The postal service wouldn't cut you off. They get paid on a unit basis. Of course, if you can't pay to mail a letter, you don't send a letter.

But Facebook is different

First, Facebook reaches out to everyone. But more to the point, Facebook has made identity a central part of their mission. If Facebook cut off Matt Kruse's identity, they would be cutting off Matt Kruse's access to friends. It would not be the case that they would just delete @HappyCoder22 and he could re-register as @HappyCoder23. They would be deleting "Matt Kruse," the man's actual identity.

Then, of course, there's the question of recourse. Kruse has something like 300,000 likes on his Facebook page. He's got a lot of fans. Cutting him off generates press.

But what if someone, say you, just got cut off from Facebook. What is your recourse? The odds are slim that you could reach a human at Facebook, explain your situation, and have it restored. You probably couldn't hire a lawyer to get it back.

The fact is, if Facebook kills your account, you're screwed

Even worse, there's no due process. There's no trial by jury. There's no counsel for the defense. There aren't even charges. There's just some Orwellian faceless Facebook employee who clicks a button on a Web page and ... poof ... you cease to exist.

Should this be an issue for government intervention and regulation? Well, on week 2 of the 2013 government shutdown, I wouldn't feel comfortable recommending the government for anything useful.

But it would be nice to see Facebook have an escalation and representation mechanism in place so consumers who do experience this sort of ultimate punishment can fight their way back to their families and friends.

If anyone at Facebook is reading this and wants to suggest mechanisms consumers can use, I'm always open to talking.

Topics: Security

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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