Monday, February 13, 2012

Leaving Facebook

When I was in Berlin two years ago, I visited the Stasi Museum, located in the former headquarters of the East German secret police/domestic intelligence agency. Unfortunately my German is spotty at best and the exhibits weren't translated into English, so I had to sort of grope along and try to get the gist of it all.

The Stasi, of all the old Communist state security apparati, are notable for their obsessive, almost comically absurd collection of data on every East German citizen. The degree of their snooping is mind-blowing, with one secret policeman for every 166 citizens; the ratio gets a lot higher if you count the various paid and unpaid informants. The story is that even utterly ordinary citizens had vast volumes of paper files recording in exhaustive detail the most trivial details of their daily lives. Even if there were something meaningful in there, the sheer volume would make it next to impossible to access--you'd have to slog through piles of descriptions of what people had for breakfast, transcripts of boring conversations about laundry, and other chaff to find anything actionable.

I've been on Facebook for about five years now. In the beginning, it was an unambiguously wonderful thing. Suddenly I could easily find friends with whom I'd lost touch years or decades ago. As an online White Pages that didn't care what city you were in and never heard of long distance charges, it was unsurpassed.

Over time, though, it's become troubling--for me and for many others. The games like Farmville you invite into your profile like little data vampires were only the beginning. Increasingly your Facebook identity is defined not by your decisions but by other peoples'. People no longer "invite" but unilaterally add you to groups; Facebook icons on every second website that track what you read; other people can identify you in photographs, be they innocent or compromising.

These intrusions are for the most part avoidable or reversible. But the onus is on you to edit the record, not on others to avoid sullying it in the first place. Innocence is no longer a default state but an endless chore of vigilance. At the very least it requires you to visit Facebook from time to time, if only to make sure no one has tagged a photo of you taking a drunken crap in your neighbour's sunroof.

But these aren't the things that worry me the most. As invasive as they are to someone raised in the pre-digital age, I imagine that they will become part of the background noise after awhile. When everybody is surrounded with cameras at all times, when everyone is connected through social media, when each person can add to the identity of each other person, ultimately everybody is equally exposed. Barring evidence of bona fide criminal activity, it will be a rare person indeed who is in a position to throw stones.

That's the optimistic view, anyway.

And yet Facebook worries me. It's not the fact that more and more information about you is online--that's almost a given, and more or less unavoidable. People don't use the term "information economy" so much anymore--it seems kind of quaint, early-nineties dated, from back when no one was quite sure how to make money from this crazy new Internet thing. But information is definitely a commodity, gathered and sold to marketers to better identify their potential customers. Dozens of websites have information about your shopping, reading, gaming and vacationing habits--but for the most part no one knows about all of these. The puzzle pieces of your life are safely scattered among many players who, by definition, are unwilling to freely share them with each other. The friction of self-interest keeps the full picture of you from being exposed.

But with Facebook, the information becomes much more concentrated. Between the information that you volunteer, the tags that your friends share on your behalf, and the data that stream from the blue F icon (inexplicably) embedded in your favourite porn site, the dozens or hundreds of data streams collect into a huge, private Lake Baikal of information.

The other issue I have is the increasing automation of data collection. Facial recognition software is now advancing to the point that they're talking about sites like Facebook automatically identifying and tagging you in hundreds or thousands of online photographs. To me, the sheer scale of this is ominous, not to say obvious in retrospect. It sounds like the final line in a Twilight Zone episode. "Well, of course we planned this. Why do you think we called it Facebook?"

The logistics of continually finding and deleting unwanted tags are daunting enough. But it's all the worse if the software is less than perfect. In the offline world, I get mistaken for someone else all the time; I just have "one of those faces." My parents once even clipped a photo from the newspaper, convinced that it was me waving a banner at an environmental protest. (It wasn't.)

I don't look forward to the day when buggy facial-recognition software unilaterally "recognizes" me at white-supremacist rallies, Taliban training camps, and Dealy Plaza in 1963.

When that day comes, maybe I'll come back to Facebook. I'll need its Timeline, and the corroborating tags, notes and likes from people who actually know me, just to establish an alibi.

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