Facebook, photos and the CIA

When I was still living at home with my mother, I always knew the gossip and who went out with whom.  If I listened carefully, I could probably of worked out who shopped where, what they purchased and understand that their dress-sense was inappropriate for church and they didn’t fool anyone by dyeing their hair because the cuffs and collars didn’t match.  I knew all this because my mother was a member of a social networking site, established centuries ago and honed to a level of detailed reporting that Facebook or Twitter would envy and any marketer would give his right arm for.  It was called ‘friends’ and they would sit in my mother’s house, drinking coffee and eating cakes, spreading the ‘news’ and explaining exactly about Mrs Carter and her liking for the butcher’s sausage.  Occasionally, photographic evidence would be used to support the latest salacious nugget of information, because Mrs Skipsey just happened to have a picture of Mrs Carter’s daughter Jane in the background of a snap taken at her son’s friend’s birthday party and doesn’t Jane look like the Butcher more than Mrs Carter’s husband.  Then for good measure Mrs Skipsey would name everyone else in the picture and more gossip would follow.  Or, sometimes, if the gossip was really juicy, my mother would receive a phone call from one of her friends and of course feel obliged to pass it on.  Admit it, you have all seen this.

So why on earth has everyone in the world suddenly started criticising Facebook because they have the technology to identify who’s whom in pictures uploaded onto their clients’ pages?  Some of the more outlandish comments I have seen claim ‘Government snooping’ and the ‘end of privacy’ or ‘world government wanting to know everything about us’.  No.  I disagree.  Facebook launched the technology in order to help their users identify who is in the background, because if you are like me you have lots of old photos in a box where you haven’t the foggiest idea of who was sat at the table with you at Josephine’s wedding.  Facebook just goes through the photographs for you and the computer says “I think that is Jane, the one everyone just ‘knows’ is the butcher’s daughter.”  This is not a governmental or commercial conspiracy – its just gossip, only faster and electronic because nowadays most people work and haven’t got time to eat my mother’s cakes.

Like everyone, the government knows exactly who I am.  They know when I travel, what I earn, what car I drive and who lives in my house with me.  I have a passport and a driving licence, so they have my photograph and fingerprints.  And because I travel extensively in the US and Europe, more than one Government has this or similar information, even a scan of my iris for Border Control.  My employers have details of my academic record and the names and addresses of people I worked with.  Some prospective employers may even have details I tried to hide when I applied, depending on exactly what they asked my referees.  Add in credit checks and drug screens and you soon have an awful lot of information about you out there.  You know that when a very nice policeman pulls in behind you and runs your plates he not only knows who you are, but that your car is 5 years old and is only a base model and not the sports version like the badge you stuck on says.  He will also know that the car is really owned by the finance company and that you are a customer of abc insurance.  He may also be aware that this car was last seen outside xwz location yesterday.  But so would have my mother and her friends.

Some people worry about photographs – so what?  Everyone knows that you cannot walk into a bank or shop without being recorded on CCTV and traffic control cameras are everywhere. Anyone with a computer can connect to streaming pictures of freeways all over the world and I have in the past looked at the UK and Indianapolis simultaneously to compare weather conditions.  Images exist and just because Facebook tells you that in your tourist snaps of Paris the man sat behind on the steps of Notre Dame was M. Claude Boules it is only the same as if you happened to hear his name called anyway.  About a month ago, a friend mine from the United Kingdom sent me a photograph of me taken at an event I attended in San Francisco.  The photograph was a group publicity shot and the photographer had identified who was in attendance for the history of the event.  My friend had come across it through an indirect search and it was coincidence that we knew each other; otherwise my name would have been insignificant.  This is also the way with images and the photographs you put on Facebook, only significant to those who know or care about those photographed. 

I am purposefully avoiding the data companies hold on me, but my airline knows where I fly and my credit card company knows as well – together with my choice in rental cars and hotels.  My local supermarket knows what I buy, so the company could more than likely make a guess as to what I have for dinner most evenings.  So if they want to suggest that I eat my cow with a marinade made from the various sauces I buy, so be it.  It will save me the bother of having to look it up or running out to the drive-thru because I am sick of eating plain steaks.  But remember, when the response rate to direct marketing is less than 5%, it means that 95% is ‘junk’ mail, so if by using some clever data analysis they stop sending me invitations to subscribe to Vegan’s World magazine, I’m all for it.  And remember, a lot of us give this information away ourselves in the first place through surveys and not ticking the privacy boxes on forms.

Having a level of detail about you in the public arena is unavoidable, even if it’s the photograph of getting drunk with a college roommate 20 years ago, because the roommate remembers your name and tells the people who look at it when cleaning out the attic decades later.  Most photographs end up in a box with the subjects forgotten.  Yes, these photographs may now be electronic – so what. Unless of course you just happen to be a Senator trying to impress the ladies with your physique, but that is a whole different story.  And it’s not Facebook who will pull out that photograph of you at two years old naked in the kitchen sink, it will be you mother or your brother or even Facebook;s users, not the company.

Even with all the electronic media now available, I would still put a bet on my mother and her friends being able to spread the news about Mrs Carter and the greengrocer faster than Facebook any day.  The East Germans knew this before the end of the cold war, because instead of installing listening devices and using spy cameras, they recruited thousands of local gossips.  But the data collected just sat there because its just gossip and really, nobody cares.  My mother may talk about Mrs Carter, but in the next town it was Mrs Morris and everyone knew the Butcher didn’t have a bike.   And when it does come to government analysis, you know that with 18 different agencies in the US alone, there is no way they can look at the data.  Because even when a government has access to the latest technologies and numerous data gathering resources, it still takes almost 10 years for them to work out that the target is just outside a military base.   So in all, I would fear my mother and Mrs Skipsey well before I fear Facebook, simply because I can chose not to Facebook in the first place.

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About cryptothinker
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