Social Networking and You: The Loss of Privacy in the Digital Age

By Ian Barry
Staff Columnist

The panopticon was a theoretical building designed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, wherein every occupant could be observed at any time by a central watcher, without the occupants being able to tell whether or not they were being watched. I refer to the term because it’s similar to the situation in which we now find ourselves today, with a significant portion of the population voluntarily submitting themselves to a camouflaged data mining and advertising service. I am talking, of course, about Facebook.

If you put a little thought into it, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to you. Facebook doesn’t charge money, so how do they make any? It’s a multi-billion dollar corporation. Server hosting, programmers, all these things cost money. They’re not providing the service out of the goodness of their hearts. In fact, social networking is the side effect. The primary aim of Facebook is advertisement. Every ad you see in the sidebar is money for Facebook, not to mention the data mining.

Data mining is the practice of isolating and codifying patterns in large data sets. In short, this means that Facebook collects and analyses all your activity on its site, then produces tailored advertisements based on any detected patterns. Post about video games a lot, and you’ll get ads for video games in the sidebar. I once got an ad for a cheap PCR machine.

What you probably don’t know is that Facebook also tracks your activity on other websites. Cookies are little bits of data that websites store on your computer so they can identify you – active logins to websites, saved passwords, and more. All these functions are based on cookies. You will also have noticed the little “Share This” widgets that appear almost everywhere these days: a little button set so that you can instantly share whatever it is on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. The thing is, your Facebook cookies communicate with these widgets, and the data is sent back to Facebook. It doesn’t matter if you’re logged in or not. As long as you have logged into Facebook at some time on that computer, Facebook knows if you visit any site with a bit of their code. Which, again, is many of them.

So you can just delete them right? Not necessarily. The past few years has seen the advent of zombie cookies, or cookies that circumvent normal deletion methods. They can prove very difficult to remove, not to mentionthey present a serious privacy breach. And here’s the kicker: companies are already using them. Microsoft, MTV, NBC, ESPN, MySpace, Hulu, and ABC have all been documented utilizing zombie cookies. Similarly, anytime you use a Flash applet, it stores some data offline that can be used to track your browsing activity, independent of your browser.

Now I will abandon documented facts for some speculation. Previously, Facebook’s privacy policy explicitly stated that it could share your personal data with third-party companies. After criticism over this point, Facebook eventually removed that line. But you want to know what I think? Every time Facebook overhauls a feature, like Timeline, or introduces a new one, such as Facebook Connect, there always ends up being some flaw, some problem, some way in which your personal data is exposed. Facebook’s primary aim is, again, advertisement and profit. I don’t think it’s going to stop. I think they’re going to keep at it until people stop caring. I’m not saying Facebook is evil, just that it will pursue profit, even at the expense of its users. And though I speak only about Facebook here, many social networking websites can be analyzed using the same model. Be aware of the risks. Make an informed decision.

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