04
Oct

Don't trust Facebook with your data

It's been five years since it opened its doors to the general public; and, despite my avid hopes that it DIAF, the fact is that Facebook is not dead yet. Far from it. The phenomenon continues to take the world by storm, now ranking as the 2nd most visited web site in the world (after Google), and augmenting its loyal ranks with every passing day.

I've always hated Facebook. I originally joined not out of choice, but out of necessity, there being no other way to contact numerous friends of mine who had decided to boycott all alternative methods of online communication. Every day since joining, I've remained a reluctant member at best, and an open FB hater to say the least. The recent decisions of several friends of mine to delete their FB account outright, brings a warm fuzzy smile to my face. I haven't deleted my own FB account — I wish I could; but unfortunately, doing so would make numerous friends of mine uncontactable to me, and numerous social goings-on unknowable to me, today as much as ever.

There are, however, numerous features of FB that I have refused to utilise from day one, and that I highly recommend that all the world boycott. In a nutshell: any feature that involves FB being the primary store of your important personal data, is a feature that you should reject outright. Facebook is an evil company, and don't you forget it. They are not to be trusted with the sensitive and valuable data that — in this digital age of ours — all but defines who you are.

Don't upload photos

I do not upload any photos to FB. No exceptions. End of story. I uploaded a handful of profile pictures back in the early days, but it's been many years since I did even that.

People who don't know me so well, will routinely ask me, in a perplexed voice: "where are all your Facebook photos?" As if not putting photos on Facebook is akin to not diving onto the road to save an old lady from getting hit by a five-car road train.

My dear friends, there are alternatives! My photos all live on Flickr. My Flickr account has an annual fee, but there are a gazillion advantages to Flickr over FB. It looks better. It doesn't notify all my friends every time I upload a photo. For a geek like me, it has a nice API (FB's API being anything but nice).

But most importantly, I can trust Flickr with my photos. For many of us, our photos are the most valuable digital assets we possess, both sentimentally, and in information identity monetary terms. If you choose to upload your photos to FB, you are choosing to trust FB with those photos, and you are relinquishing control of them over to FB. I know people who have the only copy of many of their prized personal photos on FB. This is an incredibly bad idea!

FB's Terms of Service are, to say the least, horrendous. They reserve the right to sell, to publish, to data mine, to delete, and to prevent deletion of, anything that you post on FB. Flickr, on the other hand, guarantees in its Terms of Service that it will do none of these things; on the contrary, it even goes so far as to allow you to clearly choose the license of every photo you upload to the site (e.g. Creative Commons). Is FB really a company that you're prepared to trust with such vital data?

Don't tag photos

If you're following my rule above, of not uploading photos to FB, then not tagging your own photos should be unavoidable. Don't tag your friends' photos either!

FB sports the extremely popular feature of allowing users to draw a box around their friends' faces in a photo, and to tag those boxes as corresponding to their friends' FB accounts. For a geek like myself, it's been obvious since the moment I first encountered this feature, that it is Pure Evil™. I have never tagged a single face in a FB photo (although unfortunately I've been tagged in many photos by other people). Boycott this tool!

Why is FB photo tagging Pure Evil™, you ask? Isn't it just a cool idea, that means that when you hover over peoples' faces in a photo, you are conveniently shown their names? No — it has other conveniences, not for you but for the FB corporation, for other businesses, and for governments; and those conveniences are rather more sinister.

Facial recognition software technology has been advancing at a frighteningly rapid pace, over the past several years. Up until now, the accuracy of such technology has been insufficient for commercial or government use; but we're starting to see that change. We're seeing the emergence of tools that are combining the latest algorithms with information on the Web. And, as far as face-to-name information online goes, FB — thanks to the photo-tagging efforts of its users — can already serve as the world's largest facial recognition database.

This technology, combined with other data mining tools and applications, make tagged FB photos one of the biggest potential enemies of privacy and anti- Big Brother in the world today. FB's tagged photo database is a wet dream for the NSA and cohort. Do you want to voluntarily contribute to the wealth of everything they know about everyone? Personally, I think they know more than enough about us already.

Don't send FB messages when you could send an e-mail

This is a simple question of where your online correspondence is archived, and of how much you care about that. Your personal messages are an important digital asset of yours. Are they easily searchable? Are you able to export them and back them up? Do you maintain effective ownership of them? Do you have any guarantee that you'll be able to access them in ten years' time?

If a significant amount of your correspondence is in FB messages, then then the answer to all the above questions is "no". If, on the other hand, you still use old-fashioned e-mail to send privates messages whenever possible, then you're in a much better situation. Even if you use web-based e-mail such as Gmail (which I use), you're still far more in control of your mailbox content than you are with FB.

For me, this is also just a question of keeping all my personal messages in one place, and that place is my e-mail archives. Obviously, I will never have everything sent to my FB message inbox. So, it's better that I keep it all centralised where it's always been — in my good "ol' fashioned" e-mail client.

Other boycotts

Don't use FB Pages as your web site. Apart from being unprofessional, and barely a step above (*shudder*) MySpace (which is pushing up the daisies, thank G-d), this is once again a question of trust and of content ownership. If you care about the content on your web site, you should care about who's caring for your web site, too. Ideally, you're caring for it yourself, or you're paying someone reliable to do so for you. At least go one step up, and use Google Sites — because Google isn't as evil as FB.

Don't use FB Notes as your blog. Same deal, really. If you were writing an old-fashioned paper diary, would you keep it on top of your highest bookshelf at home, or would you chain it to your third cousin's dog's poo-covered a$$? Well, guess what — FB is dirtier and dodgier than a dog's poo-covered a$$. So, build your own blog! Or at least use Blogger or Wordpress.com, or something. But not FB!

Don't put too many details in your FB profile fields. This is more the usual stuff that a million other bloggers have already discussed, about maintaining your FB privacy. So I'll just be quick. Anything that you're not comfortable with FB knowing about, doesn't belong in your FB profile. Where you live, where you work, where you studied. Totally optional information. Relationship status — I recommend never setting it. Apart from the giant annoyance of 10 gazillion people being notified of when you get together or break up with your partner, does a giant evil corporation really need to know your relationship / marital status, either?

Don't friend anyone you don't know in real life. Again, many others have discussed this already. You need to understand the consequences of accepting someone as your friend on FB. It means that they have access to a lot of sensitive and private information about you (although hopefully, if you follow all my advice, not all that much private information). It's also a pretty lame ego boost to add friends whom you don't know in real life.

Don't use any FB apps. I don't care what they do, I don't care how cool they are. I don't want them, I don't need them. No marketplace, thanks! No stupid quizzes, thanks! And please, for the love of G-d, I swear I will donate my left testicle to feed starving pandas in Tibet before I ever play Farmville. No thankyou sir.

Don't like things on FB. I hate the "Like" button. It's a useless waste-of-time gimmick. It also has some (small) potential to provide useful data mining opportunities to the giant evil FB corporation. I admit, I have on occasion liked things. But that goes against my general rule of hating FB and everything on it.

What's left?

So, if you boycott all these things, what's left on FB, you ask? Actually, in my opinion, with all these things removed, what you're left with is the pure essentials of FB, and when viewed by themselves they're really not too bad.

The core of FB is, of course: having a list of friends; sharing messages and external content with groups of your friends (on each others' walls); and being notified of all your friends' activity through your stream. There is also events, which is in my opinion the single most useful feature of FB — they really have done a good job at creating and refining an app for organising events and tracking invite RSVPs; and for informal social functions (at least), there actually isn't any decent competition to FB's events engine available at present. Plus, the integration of the friends list and the event invite system does work very nicely.

What's left, at the core of FB, doesn't involve trusting FB with data that may be valuable to you for the rest of your life. Links and YouTube videos that you share with your friends, have a useful lifetime of about a few days at best. Events, while potentially sensitive in that they reveal your social activity to Big Brother, do at least also have limited usefulness (as data assets) past the date of the event.

Everything else is valuable data, and it belongs either in your own tender loving hands, or in the hands of a provider signficantly more responsible and trustworthy than FB.

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