The Facebook experiment

Methods used by the world's largest social network have become the de facto standard for trading private information for a convenient service, but privacy experts say it could be a generation before we see how the great Facebook experiment turns out.

Methods used by the world's largest social network have become the de facto standard for trading private information for a convenient service, but privacy experts say it could be a generation before we see how the great Facebook experiment turns out.

"Facebook has now become the benchmark by which other technology companies judge themselves when launching similar features. The first question is, 'What do Facebook do?'," said a participant at the Identity and Privacy Workshop hosted by the International Association of Privacy Professionals Australia and New Zealand chapter (iappANZ) in Sydney yesterday.

The workshop was lead by Kaliya Hamlin, known online as Identity Woman and was held under the Chatham House Rule, so individual speakers cannot be identified. However, there were around 35 participants from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), National E-Health Transition Authority (NEHTA), Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO), NICTA, NBN Co and Telstra, as well as lawyers, smart card vendors, web developers, and consultants on privacy, identity systems and cybercrime.

Participants generally dismissed some of the more paranoid privacy viewpoints from privacy advocates and security consultants, who blocked access to social networking sites and saw the cloud as a disaster, as "hysteria".

Yet others recommended following the precautionary principle, which says, in effect, that even if there's no clear evidence that something is in fact harmful, you still act is if the possibility of harm is real.

"We have organisations that have got multibillion-dollar valuations based on nothing more than the knowledge that they have about us. Is it not precautionary to say there should be some sort of throttle, or some sort of check, that limits what they do with the information that they've got about us?" one participant said.

Take, for example, a psychiatrist who uses a smartphone to organise appointments with their patients. If their address book gets uploaded to a social networking site, either legitimately or clandestinely by a rogue application, it could have consequences.

"Alice and Bob are both seeing the same psychiatrist, they get a find-friends recommendation, 'Hey Bob, you should meet Alice, you both know Dr Smith'," explained a participant.

"Once the fact that I'm seeing a psychiatrist is out there, I'll never get that back."

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg would counter that we live in a new age of transparency.

"Zuckerberg may feel that things have changed, but I think, largely, the rest of society might disagree," said a participant.

They cited the example of some US employers now demanding that prospective employees hand over their Facebook log-in credentials as part of the job interview — something that's been reported in the media recently, but which has apparently been going on for at least two years.

"Ten years ago you'd never find an employer saying 'Can I look at your private mail? Can I eavesdrop on your conversations with your associates? Who are your friends? What do you do in your social time?' ... Now a lot of prospective employees have that information online," an attendee lamented.

Perhaps it reflected the fact that all the conference attendees were adults, but most seemed to think that Facebook was pushing the boundaries of personal transparency too quickly. The most positive word used was "trailblazing".

"I feel a little creeped out by Facebook knowing so much about my online activity," said one.

And yet, in less than 10 years, Facebook has become a normal part of life for most Australians and has expanded its remit, slowly increasing its capabilities.

"We are the people who didn't grow up with Facebook," someone said, noting that if they'd known what Facebook would become — face recognition technology and all — they'd never have posted certain photos five years ago.

The next generation will grow up knowing that certain photographs should never be posted online because they'll know that employers will trawl their profiles looking for dirt. They'll know that, unlike today, you can't leave an embarrassing stage of your life in the past and move on, because everything posted online is online forever.

Perhaps society will change and realise everyone has past embarrassments and employers will disregard them — otherwise a generation will be unemployable.

The clear consensus was that it will be a generation or more before the full ramifications of the Facebook experiment are completely understood, and whether the trade-off was judged a good deal.

By then it'll be too late to turn back.

Stilgherrian attended the iappANZ workshop as a guest of the Lockstep Group.


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