I love social networking. Say what you will, it’s never been easier to keep in touch with friends and family.
As a technologist, I particularly love the “network” part of it. I’m really happy about the way the big companies have opened up their APIs, which allows third party developers to add all sorts of functionality that no one company, however large, could or would build on their own. I also roll my eyes when people complain that Facebook and other social networks are…GASP…exposing our personal information without our knowledge. Why? Because it’s not without our knowledge. You don’t even have to read fine print to understand that. Sharing personal information is the purpose of social networks after all. It does mean that people share more than they used to, and that can be embarrassing in ways that didn’t used to be possible, but I think it’s worth it.
Yet I’ve realized recently that I shouldn’t be quite so dismissive every time I see yet another “FaceBook Privacy Scare!” headline. There’s a valid point to the concerns about what happens to your data in social networks. Even though it should be obvious that saying/revealing/posting things on a free public site is by nature a public exposure, what isn’t obvious is that modern data-mining techniques have ramifications here that almost no one is truly prepared for. After all, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic:
“Bale-Zur. Bale-Zur. Bale-Zur. By the power of your true name and the force of our bargain I call you, I summon you, I command you to make yourself manifest.”
As the wizard gestured, the smoke billowed even thicker and the glow grew fiercer and larger. And then the smoke wafted away as though on a breeze, leaving the mightiest of demons revealed.
The huge black creature squatted toadlike in the chamber, nearly filling the pentagram and almost brushing the stone vaulting of the ceiling. His horned and warty head swivelled slowly and continually from side to side, as if seeking prey. The great claws clenched and relaxed against the stone.
“My due,” the demon’s voice boomed out, so low that the undertones made the wizard’s bones quiver. “I will have my due.”
“I give you one,” hissed Toth-Set-Ra. “I give you the one known to men as Sparrow, called Wiz. By the power of his true name I give him to you.”
The monster paused and considered. The huge mouth opened, showing rows of teeth like daggers, and the beast ran a surprisingly pink tongue over its black scaly lips.
“Sparrow is not his true name,” the creature rumbled. “Nor is Wiz.”
“By the power of his true name I give him to you!” Toth-Set-Ra repeated, more shrilly.
Again the demon Bale-Zur considered. At last the massive head stopped moving and the glowing red eyes focused on the wizard.
“This one’s true name is not written upon the wind,” the demon said at last.
Toth-Set-Ra licked his lips, suddenly gone dry. “But he has a true name,” he insisted desperately. “All men have a true name.”
“Then it has never been spoken within the World,” said the demon, hopping cumbersomely forward. “Our bargain is broken and I will have my due.”
Toth-Set-Ra screamed and backed away as the demon crossed the now-useless pentagram. He scuttled toward the door, but the great creature was too quick for him. A huge clawed foot caught him squarely in the back as his hand touched the door handle.
In the riot and confusion of the shuddering palace no one noticed the screams. But they went on for a long, long time.
The wizard commanding Bale-Zur could have anyone in the world assassinated. The only requirement is that their true name had been spoken at least once, somewhere. Pure fantasy, but now imagine this:
When your waiter walks away from your table in a crowded restaurant and you mutter, “Jerk,” under your breath, you do so without much thought. You’re in a public place and you said the words out loud, but probably only your table-mates heard you. If, maybe, someone at the next table heard you, it doesn’t matter because they don’t know you. Within seconds, the fact that you said it is gone from the world.
Bu suppose you had Yelped your irritation with the server, perhaps even from the table, venting your irritation in quick taps at your smartphone’s screen. Some of your friends may see it, and some future patrons of the restaurant…
A year and a half later, you apply for a job as a catering manager for a large hotel. The hiring wizard summons the most basic version of Bale-Zur, a powerful demon named Google. What he learns is enough to convince him that you lack warmth and compassion for serving staff and wouldn’t inspire and motivate as a manager. You don’t even get an interview, and you never learn why. The professional face you would have put on for an interview is irrelevant because of the casual comments you made that were semi-anonymous until the demon Google plucked them from the digital winds of the world.
Google is an an ancient demon in Internet years, so more and more people are beginning to exercise a little caution about what they say online. I have to admit that the incessant warnings have helped with this.
But a new breed of demon is being bred. See for yourself:
For all Google’s immense power and reach, it’s pretty straightforward. The new demons have a more predatory cunning. They’ll come at you sideways. Understanding how they can touch you is almost impossible to predict. They don’t have to be used for evil, but they certainly can be.
Fortunately, even though you can’t predict what tomorrow’s demons will look like, protecting yourself is still relatively straightforward. Make sure your default privacy settings are somewhat restrictive. That way, making something public requires conscious effort on your part. Don’t rely on false anonymity. Assume that anything that’s not restricted to “Friends” is effectively posted on the street in front of your house. Is that where you’d put pictures of yourself in a bikini? Pictures of your children? Pictures of the expensive items inside your house? Your travel or daily schedule?
This still supposes that you trust your chosen social network company, which is probably ok. If they misuse your information, the likely outcome is that you get aggressively targeted ads. (Or that your data gets turned over to law enforcement, so be careful of you’re an activist, law-breaker, or a member of the “wrong” religion or ethnic group.)
It’s not the 2000s anymore – you have to practice safe social.