#Reality check

Submitted by Larry on 12 May 2010 - 10:56pm

I admit it, I'm on Twitter. I have been for a little over a year. I have a fairly low opinion of it in general, but I am still on it and make random comments to people from time to time.

Earlier today, one of the people I follow tweeted that his young (under 5, I believe) daughter had just done something stupid. Nothing illegal or immoral, just the sort of embarrassing and sometimes destructive stupidity that young children tend to get into. And he then tweeted it.

Which means that his under age daughter's actions are now part of the permanent archive of the US government.

Think about that for a moment. Think of the implications of that. Every tweet, ever, will now be archived, permanently, by the US Library of Congress. Trivial, casual pseudo-conversation about someone's cat's hairball is now a part of the official public record on the same level as an issue of the New York Times. It is therefore available, permanently, to anyone. (Well, at least to US citizen who know what forms to fill out, but that will likely change.)

If the idea of everything you say being out in public didn't scare you before, does it now? Think, really think, about the implication of that person's daughter's childhood foolery now being part of a permanent government record.

Now consider that you didn't consent to the government having that archive; you consented to a private corporation (Twitter) having it, and they turned it over. You already consented to everthing you say being available to all 6 billion people in the world.

Think, how much of what you say do you really want available to over 6 billion people? How much of what you think is "private" really is? It isn't. Does checking a "private" checkbox actually make it private? Not in any meaning the word had until 5 years ago. Not one bit is one bit private.

I'm sure some will call Big Brother here, about how the US government is spying on people (retroactively?). That's not the main issue, however. Do recall that there are more people on Facebook than there are people in the USA, and Facebook is a private corporation with a long track record of tracking every single click a user makes, every word he writes, every friend he has, and selling that data to other private corporations. It's not a government vs. non-government question. It's a fact of the modern Internet that such information exists, and will be, has already been exploited, and in ways you don't want.

Have you thought about that? How many people have? Have you really sat down to consider how much of your personal life you're giving away to the world at large?

Have you ever thought about how much of someone else's personal life you're giving away to the world at large... without their permission?

The activities of a 5 year old little girl in her own home are now a matter of public record. Did she consent to that? Does she even comprehend the question? Does her father?

By the time she's old enough to comprehend the way in which her privacy was just violated... will she even care? Will the concept even still exist?

How many people even stop to think about the implications of talking about their sex life on Facebook, Live Journal, "private" tweets (not any more they're not), and the like? We've all heard the stories of people turned down for jobs because their Facebook page contains pictures of them drinking or doing drugs in college, but who actually thinks about what that means? Who stops to think that everything you say, everything you do, everything your friends say about you, can and will be used against you?

That's without even getting into the "obvious" issues like the legal system being decades behind the curve.

We are decades behind the curve.

Social Media means your privacy is violated every single day by your own friends and family, without them even thinking about it. Social Publishing means treating that as a good thing.

As web developers, we are speeding this transition. We build the tools that build this new world.

The world has changed, and it is not changing back. Have you really thought about what that means?

How many people's privacy did you violate today without thinking about it?

Have you thought about what "private life" means now? In 5 years, most people won't understand the concept.

If you aren't absolutely terrified by these issues, you haven't thought them through yet.

PS: If you have pictures of me on Facebook, please remove them immediately. If you have videos of me on Facebook, please remove them immediately. If you have mention of me on Facebook, please remove them immediately. It's the least "safe" social network out there. I want no part of it. Please do not violate my privacy by posting anything of me on Facebook.

Update: The New York Times has an excellent piece on just how hard it is to tell Facebook to not treat all of your information as public. It takes hundreds of clicks.

Ben (not verified)

13 May 2010 - 12:01am

Have you thought about that some people aren't terrified by some of the things you're talking about?

Have you thought about trying to understand other perspectives rather than dismissing them as thoughtless? Seems like you crossed the line from thought-provoking to closed-minded in that last sentence.

So, you're terrified that some people have thought about it and you're terrified that some people haven't. Larry, I've met you and you don't seem like a terrified guy! Take it easy!

Yep. How many people have model releases from the people they take pictures of? How many people even know their picture was taken?

That's why my own Flickr stream is marked "all rights reserved" instead of Creative Commons (no model releases) and I generally only post pictures taken in a public place of a non-embarrassing nature (at least nothing that someone's employer wouldn't be OK seeing). In fact non-Drupal pictures from me are extremely rare.

If it got you thinking, then the post was a success. :-)

Releases for photography are one of the most gray areas there is legally, especially in the United States, where the law varies greatly from state to state (I do professional photography in 3 different states and it's a nightmare). For something like Drupalcon, a waiver signed by the organizer powers to be is generally sufficient in most states. Yeah - if I'm hosting an event and I sign a waiver for pictures taken of you at our event, then they can use them. Of course a lot of states have an additional layer there, where the organizer would be required to inform you of this, generally by signing a consent form or having a mention of it on your registration form.

But what really gets me is the photography of minors. Yeah everyone loves showing off their little pride and joys, but you never know what some pervert on the internet might do with them. How long before your really cute little girl has her picture photoshopped onto some naked kids body and ends up in the inbox of some Chris Hanson target? A lot of my photography work involves real estate, doing virtual tours of new houses on the market. A lot of these houses have pictures of their kids plastered everywhere, and I spend the time going through and blurring out the faces of children before they get published.

As far as Twitter and privacy, well pretty much as soon as you tweet you throw privacy out the window. Twitter's TOS used to say that Twitter claims no intellectual property rights over material you submit to their site (profile, tweets, etc.). Now it says, while you retain the rights to any content posted, you also grant Twitter the right to basically do whatever they want with it. There goes me writing that awesome new trilogy screenplay 140 characters at a time.

Hi Larry,
I'm really glad to see that someone's writing about this huge issue of our modern world. online privacy has always been one of my concerns (for over a decade). As you said we as software developers are making this tools, we're among the few who know what's happening behind the scene. So it's up to us to let the people know that their privacy is getting violated every second and there is no turning back!

However there is a one big question. can we really abandon our online social activities?! i though about it a lot and realized that this issue is much more complicated than it looks like.

I've updated my article with some of the your good point here, let me know if that's ok.

Rob (not verified)

13 May 2010 - 2:07am

I agree with some of your points but you go too far. Way too far. The only things that have changed are scale and format. There has been nothing to prevent a picture of you working it's way into a news paper without your consent. Think about photos of new year's celebrations; are you honestly suggesting that the photographer should be required to ask their permission before publishing it? We've always had the right to say what we like about whom we like to whom we like, the only difference here is how many people get to hear that voice from your average person and how long that voice lingers. Yes the field has changed, yes there are some worrying implications, yes we do need to rethink what it means to post a picture or voice an opinion online; but we absolutely do *not* need to do is panic and run for the hills.

Anonymous (not verified)

13 May 2010 - 6:44am

Model releases are only appropriate for commercial photography (e.g. fashion shoots). Otherwise, I generally agree with this article.

So I'm confused, do you or don't you want us to talk about this post on Twitter? ;-)

You raise some good points but I don't see Twitter of FaceBook as a new problem. I agree with Rob that all that has changed is scale and format. Before social networking, there were blogs and webpages that contained information and images you may or may not have liked to seen posted. Just google or bing Larry Garfield Drupal in their image sections and you'll get my point. Take away FaceBook and Twitter...and you've only scratched the surface of the information about you that is already out there. Forget the U.S. government...archive.org has already done job for them in preserving the flattering and the unflattering.

But even before there was an Internet...people still wrote or talked about you without your permission. On my bookshelf is a book that someone dedicated a chapter or two to talk about my wife's grandfather. Her grandfather was one of the last real cowboys growing up in the Dakotas before modern life made its way there. Somebody decided to write about him and a few others of those last cowboys. Ironically, in this day and age of the Internet and easy communication...no one probably would think to take the time and write a book about the life of these men.

Your point though is well taken. Not only should we worry about what we write about our own life on social networks, but we also need to be considerate in what we discuss (or not discuss) about others. Personally, I'm not so concerned about how much is said about me but only that what is said about me is truthful. This is about the only reason I joined FaceBook. After doing a search for my name on FB, I found someone with an unflattering bio and picture that people could mistake as me. I joined FB to make sure that there was at least one social profile of "me" that told my version of the story. If you're not on the grid, someone is going to put you there anyway so you might as well make sure someone can at least find the "real you" there.

You're absolutely right that it's not just Twitter and Facebook that are the issue. I picked them out because they're the easiest, most high-profile examples but this is a social issue, not an issue of one or two companies.

Archive.org has been archiving data for a long time. What's new is that we are becoming increasingly open about the information we feed into it, without thinking about the implications of doing so. It goes all the way back to the first "pictures of my cat" sites on GeoCities or possibly before, but platforms like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and the like actively encourage people to share private information with increasing frequency and decreasing understanding. The change is happening so quickly now that high school students don't even realize that listing their boyfriend's entire history on Facebook for 300 million people is a new concept, and may not be socially OK.

Just as there's a difference between copyright violation with 2 or 3 friends and copyright violation with 2-3 million friends (which necessitates a reevaluation of copyright itself), there's a difference between gossiping with 2-3 friends and 200-300 million "friends".

... Which is another word whose meaning has become distorted.

Anonymous (not verified)

13 May 2010 - 8:15am

According to this, it's just public tweets that are going to be archived (which is clearly more sensible).


Really, anything posted on the internet shouldn't be something you wouldn't want people to find out about. Public tweets, etc. have no expectation of privacy and private anything is only half a step more secret.

Larry, I do appreciate your thoughts and your perspective and I think the ideas of privacy are something that more people should put thought in. But honestly, all this was already (or had the potential of) happening. Just because the Library of Congress decided to make it public and easier, doesn't mean they could not have archived all the tweets anyway. Anything you tweet is public. Pretty much anything you put online is public. This comment is public. And pretty much anything you put online that is not public, is owned in someway by the servie that provides that avenue.

I think Facebook and similar things are different as they actually state that they keep your privacy (or at least used to), and you can not have your Twitter account be public, but 99% of the internet is public and that is great. If you don't want a public record of a 140 character thought, don't tweet; the same is for blogging. And if you don't want a picture of you to be somewhere, then don't go out. This is the world we live in. I think privacy is important, but I don't really expect much of it on the internet.

Also, please note that if someone wants to tweet something, they can just make an anonymous account. But this is about anonymity, not privacy, which I think is much more important.

Thanks for saying this. Larry has gone over the edge with this "OMG all that information I publicly released about myself to the whole world is available to the whole world!!1!" He's probably also SHOCKED that the Internet Archive (which will no doubt also someday be added to LOC) keeps his blog posts as well.

If you don't want something public, don't make it public. The Twitter archive will be invaluable in 300 years, and I'm glad LOC has decided to collect it.

As I said, this isn't an anti-government rant, or an "I'm shocked, SHOCKED!" post.

Yes, if you release something to "the public" you shouldn't be surprised that it is in public. That's not new.

But now we "release something to the public" about 1000x times as often as we did 10 years ago, without thinking about it.

I put stuff on this blog that I want the whole world to read. :-) But how many people want the whole world to read their latest spat with their significant other? How many people want the world to know that they're away from home so it's easy to rob? How many people want the whole world to know about their childhood embarrassments?

How many put it online anyway, under the guise of a "private" checkbox or not, not realizing that they've just "released something to the public?"

That's the question that worries me.

Matt Farina (not verified)

13 May 2010 - 9:24am

The issue of privacy is not just with the social web.

For example, look at what credit card companies and banks do. When we make a transaction with credit cards they can track that information. They have huge stores of data of our shopping habits. I've seen this in action. On more than one occasion I have bought something large and out of the ordinary. These were flagged and I had to talk to someone at the bank before I could complete the purchase. They knew it was out of the ordinary.

I could come up with lots of examples illustrating what we often think of as private being stored and used by others for purposes I have no idea about. The one above is for their safety (and mine). But, how many others are used to find patterns that can be manipulated in the data? How many of them are storing data that could be used in the future about us personally?

A second example is with employment. Lots of college students do crazy things and then post those pictures on facebook. Or, their friends do. I know of cases where employers were able to see some of those pictures and that influenced decisions to not hire someone. My sister, who is in college, was shocked when I explained that these types of things happen.

Basically, I agree that what we think is private often isn't anymore. I, also, think that the lack of education on it leaves the masses uninformed on what's happening. If they were informed and making bad decisions about their private information it would be a different story.

I, also, think that the lack of education on it leaves the masses uninformed on what's happening.

Exactly. People don't understand just how significant these changes are. It's not that they don't care, it's that they don't even realize it. (OK, some don't care; I'd argue that most don't realize what they're doing.)

The goal of this post is to get people thinking about these issues.

Garrett Albright (not verified)

13 May 2010 - 10:29am

Please do not violate my privacy by posting anything of me on Facebook.

Then you may want to remove the "Share this post on Facebook/Digg/Reddit/etc" thing underneath all your posts. Just sayin'.

Sounds like the service_links module needs a patch to let you control which services it uses. :-)

I agree with Larry on a lot of this. It's scary how much people put out there. Many don't understand the implications and many just don't care. I actually just posted on this not long ago... http://couleeregiononline.com/forums/privacy-dead and was surprised by the response.

On the other hand, cutting yourself from social networking can do a lot of harm, too. The ability for people to share your links easily on SN sites is great for driving traffic. Being on SN sites, networking with people, that's great for getting your name out there and attention to what you do.

It's a balancing act. Share enough to get the benefit of SN without oversharing and giving up your privacy. This isn't the first place where I've seen a comment pointing out the irony of the share button but, really, what can you do? There's a saying that you need to fish where the fish are. That's why I'm on Facebook and Twitter and why I'll be adding share buttons and Facebook's "like" button to my site as well.


Anton (not verified)

13 May 2010 - 4:57pm

Update: The New York Times has an excellent piece on just how hard it is to tell Facebook to not treat all of your information as public. It takes hundreds of clicks.

Ahh so that's what the Dilbert strip in todays paper was about :)

It isn't up on the site yet, but I'm guessing the URL will end up being:

Simon Hobbs (not verified)

14 May 2010 - 3:24am

I think you're confusing what you want to keep private with what everyone should keep private.

Why do you see the 1s and 0s of a photo as being more public than your words, or your contributions to open source code? Your personality is plastered all over the net. You align yourself strongly with freedom of choice and privacy issues. In our worst-case Orwellian dreams that makes us political targets.

Have your TV stolen because you posted on Foursquare, or your family photos used in bad taste... what are these things? They don't threaten power structures. They don't damn us to hell. They're just stuff.

My point is that most people don't even think about the fact that all of those 1s and 0s are public, and more public than they used to be.

Chatting with your friend in a public cafe about something private means your words could be overheard by about 5 people, if they're listening.

Chatting with your friend on Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, or whatnot about something private means your words will be pushed out to thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people.

There's a fundamental difference there that as a society we just don't grok yet.

Yes, my open source contributions are public for the world. That's by design, I understand that consciously, and I want and support that. That isn't the problem. You'll notice I don't talk about my non-tech live on this blog at all, precisely because I don't want that information shared with 6 billion people.

Too many people, I feel, don't think through where they want that line, or live under the false pretense that checking "private" on a form will magically limit information to just the people they want to see it.

I have no idea what you're talking about with Orwellian political targets, though. That's not even the point I'm making.

scmeeven (not verified)

14 May 2010 - 9:01pm

I can readily concur with the implications of others sharing my personal data without my permission. Here in India, we have a free SMS service called way2sms.com. Many of my friends have registered my personal mobile number with the service without asking for my permission in order to send messages to me without them spending a penny!

Net result?

I have been getting a lot of junk messages in the past few months even though my number is registered with the National Do-not-call registry to protect my privacy. I wonder how many would have done this silly thing had they realized they were abusing my privacy.

Adrian B (not verified)

17 May 2010 - 5:19am

Since public tweets are already indexed by Google (and other search engines I assume) I don't see adding the US Library of Congress to the list making a big difference.

As of right now Facebook is actually more private. What I say on Twitter is instantly available to the entire world (and all the search engines) but what I say on Facebook is instantly available to my 60 friends (assuming I understand how to set up the privacy option). But of course, the scary part about Facebook is what happens in the future or if there are nasty exploits.

Best is to always assume that everything you say and do on the net is or will become public and act accordingly.

(Unless you completely control and/or trust the system you're using, but even those can be hacked or exploited.)

If you have mention of me on Facebook, please remove them immediately.

What about mentions in public tweets?

I do not understand about the twitter messages being saved permanently by the us government. Is that allowed? My European government imposes a limit on the time that private data can be saved. Shouldn't it follow that this limit is superimposed on the US government in order to protect us from scary figures like Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin or other crazy teapartiers? We may not have Miranda but I expect my government to negotiate my privacy against the Nigerians, the Russians, the Chinese and the Israelis and the Americans. And watch out, we have Neelie Kroes on that Department.

:-) Yes this is a very cynical type of humor.

I shouldn't mention online that Larry is one of the coolest people I have had the pleasure to encounter.

Ah, me and my bad English. I am confusing privacy sensitive data with private data. I meant to say privacy sensitive. Obviously social media aren't very private, which is the point of the article. Should we be more careful? We should not have to be, but yes. Should we build in some safeguards through legislation? I do think so.

As an afterthought, I'd like to add this.
Every society can be judged by the amount of abuse it allows towards individuals. Even if I would not say anything about anyone I know or post any pictures of people, those that I link - or am linked - with online can be singled out by association. I know only of two weapons against a corrupt government, society or body. One is privacy, but privacy is difficult to maintain in social media. The other is relentless protest. I am not prepared to become silent in fear of what can be done to me or those around me. But I am prepared to protest relentlessly. And it is here that I see the positive side of social media.