What if Facebook stole your identity?

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.

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TOPICS: Security
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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.

Topic: Security

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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Talkback

79 comments
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  • Identity Theft the Facebook Way

    Great article! I literally read it til the end, which I rarely do. One of the questions you want to ask yourself is, Does Facebook own my identity? The slippery slope of logging in to socialize is a choice. You are you, with or without Facebook. The other option you have, ultimately, is opening another Facebook account under another email and starting a feed that explains that 'Facebook pulled my plug' which they know would be an uproar. If you got people rallied behind you, it could be fierce. Fan pages with 300,000+ likes should NEVER rely on their social media to bring in revenue. It's a 'bonus', your real life interaction with people is reality. Facebook needs to understand one thing: it will never take over the power of conversation.
    DesertedRoad
    • Three Answers

      1. Never give any company control of your communications to the extent that you do not have other contact channels to friends, family, and business associates.
      2. Don't use Facebook as a direct result of their behaviors.
      3. Always identify and backup all contact information.
      Paul B. Wordman
      • You beat me to it.

        What Paul said!

        As for me, I never use Facebook except to occasionally check the offerings of some business that uses it instead of having their own web page.
        daniel1948x
  • I'm not on Facebook ...

    ... I'm one of your crazed political enemies ;-)

    I'm not really your personal enemy: I simply oppose what I see as Amercian Imperialism and unwarranted devotion to a toxic system.

    "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."
    That's it right there.
    I've been telling you guys for a few years now that you are paralysed by your Government and your global corporations ...

    ... and you are telling me now that you are paralysed by your Government and global corporations.


    Look David, it's no good saying "I wouldn't feel comfortable" ...

    ... you need to OPPOSE. As in fight to take it back.

    I am sitting here laughing at your 'epiphany'.

    Well you've got to laugh when things get really, really bad.
    jacksonjohn
    • Even worse -

      Try to unFacebook yourself. Remove any tracks. I've tried it and you just can't do it so I've had to resort to the old GIGO defence.
      carolinagirl38D
  • Single point of failure.

    I agree that if Facebook blocked someone from their site, it would affect how they communicate with friends and family but the blame can't be put on Facebook alone. People need to backup important information so that they have it if something goes wrong. In this case, if someone is important then they should have an alternative way of reaching them. Facebook is a service and like every other service, it has the right to block people if Facebook thinks they are using it wrong. Basically people can't rely on a system that has a single point of failure.
    CPPCrispy
  • What's Facebook?

    And why would I want one?
    x I'm tc
  • No government? Seriously?

    You do realize that the only reason Facebook could shut down your account is because a GOVERNMENT enforces their terms of service, right?
    baggins_z
    • False

      FB can delete accounts for violations of its own rules, which it can change as it sees fit. Personally, I think FB is a bigger time sink than I think I have discipline to deal with, so I don't even have an account.
      John L. Ries
      • John L. Ries: "I don't even have an account."

        *You* may not have a Facebook account. However, are you sure that Facebook hasn't created a shadow account for you?

        In any case, per the article, most people would be gratified to learn that Facebook "killed" their shadow profile. Especially those persons like you (and me) that eschew Facebook.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
    • re: No government? Seriously?

      > You do realize that the only reason Facebook could
      > shut down your account is because a GOVERNMENT
      > enforces their terms of service, right?

      But their terms of service include your agreement they can change the terms of service at any time.
      none none
    • Government does NOT control Facebook.

      You have it 100% totally backwards!

      The REALITY is this:

      "Do you realize that the only reason A GOVERNMENT could shut down your account is because FACEBOOK enforces the ToS, right?"

      Terms of Service on Facebook are a private contract. Government has NO ROLE WHATSOEVER in who is banned from Facebook for a ToS violation AT ALL.

      Government must issue a warrant, and they have NEVER issued a warrant to ban a facebook user becasue of *facebook's* rules and probably NEVER will. Warrants would be issues to compel Facebook to give your profile data to the gov't to search. Once they had access via warrant the Gov't would then do wiretapping activities or suspend the account themselves.

      In fact, it is part of Facebook ToS that they will honour laws and regulations and reserve the right to access and alter your account upon receiving a legal request to do so on behalf of a government. BUT, not ONLY for such reasons--they cando whatever they want within the law, and having a Facebook account is NOT a right--it is a privilige that the owner of the system can revoke for whatever reason they want.

      Facebook--and facebook ALONE--enforces ToS. It is a private, commerical agreement between Facebook and user and it is 100% responsibility of FACEBOOK to enforce ToS.
      Mark Hayden
    • You got that backwards.

      Even assuming you had the resources, the only way to have a CHANCE of reversing their decision is to to go court ... and court is GOVERNMENT. Currently, there are almost NO legal rights because their fine print basically says "even if we screw up, or act maliciously, and you or your friends or family lose their lives, even if it causes a plane crash or earthquake, it is NEVER OUR FAULT." Unless government passes laws explicitly NULLIFYING clauses such as this in "user agreements," as they did for employment in passing civil rights acts, the corporation has total control over their services, and you have no rights.

      This is the fallacy of extreme libertarianism: the strongest people or entities BECOME de facto governments, thwarting the rights of the weaker, and since they were never chosen by vote of the people, there not responsible to anyone but their owners. It can be bad ENOUGH when the representatives we VOTED on screw you over (as the last week shows); but if they got that power WITHOUT any due process of democracy, they can screw you over WORSE.
      jallan32
  • OMG! Too bad a person can't do something like open another FB account!

    To quote Mark O'Mara: "Really? Seriously?"

    An entire article for something with such a simple solution?
    Rick_R
    • Sure they could.

      ...and they would have to manually re-enter their thousands of friends again, put in all their albums again, re-join all their groups again...all from scratch, and from memory if you have never backed up said info outside facebook. Plus you need to use a different email address to sign up cuz your original one will have been blacklisted.

      Oh, and don't forget to change and behave the way facebook wants you to, or else you will get booted again and have to repeat that whole exercise.
      Mark Hayden
  • missing the important issue

    You are missing the important issue is in the US our Founding fathers acknowledge our rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness (by the way the pursuit of happiness does not include the right demand others to proved ones happiness). Our rights apply directly to companies individuals form. As such unlike the post office the companies do have a right to dictate terms of include locking and deletion of accounts.
    The second issue is social media addiction: The problem with your friend is not Facebook cutting off access but overlying on any third part sites and technology for one social life. The solution is not to rely on Facebook and have alterative way to communicate. This goes for individuals, business, and organizations. I have a Facebook account but my primary way I reach and socialize with people I know in person at meets, and email for family (I self host all my email accounts with my own domain name), and though my own blogs (again self hosted and back up if I need to move to a new web host company, independent from Google, Yahoo or Facebook) One should not be a willful i-slave to technology. The problem not with Facebook but you friend.
    Richardbz
    • Curiously enough...

      ...in 1787, corporations were quasi-public entities chartered by legislatures, and closely supervised by state governments. Were such rules in effect today, FB would probably be a sole proprietorship named "Mark Zuckerberg and Company" and Mr. Zuckerberg would be fully liable for his firm's debts (unlimited liability).
      John L. Ries
    • You should be the editor! Well Said!

      Scatcatpdx, that was a very well written statement. Thank you!
      1ndy
    • I use my facebook account to spout rhetoric and annoy people

      Seriously, I do use facebook sometimes for quick messages intended for one or fifty people. I joined the 'Procrastinators United' group about a year after it formed and haven't gotten around to leaving the group yet - six years later, but that is good because nobody has gotten around to posting anything for the past six years in the group list. I also use facebook to look up details on certain SCA events, as it is quick and dirty, and I have the app on my iPhone. I use it to express my outrage at a Congress that can't get anything done (what was the old joke? "Without Congress, what would we have?" "Progress"). I use facebook to complain about women but don't want my fiance to take it personally, which she often does due to her difficulty with the American English humor. Actually, she has become a barometer for me lately, as she reads every word literally and I have to explain things when she cannot make sense of them. Could I survive without facebook? Yes. I would just go back to using MySpace!
      Garry Hurley Jr
  • The market would destroy Facebook

    We all have a choice about whether to use Facebook or not. If Facebook starts jerking people around in an unfair way, word would get out and folks would start looking for a Facebook alternative, which would suddenly be worth investing money in. The market will keep Facebook in check.
    FDanconia