Up In Arms, For No Reason

May 27, 2010

Social media empire Facebook is in hot water, again, for taking what critics allege are too many liberties with its users’ personal data. Specifically, the online networking site has seemed willing to provide, and may have provided, information about users’ tastes and preferences to advertisers.

Advertisers can use that information to target particular demographics more accurately. Patrons of Facebook are up in virtual arms (torches, pitchforks, and DSL modems angrily brandished) at the magnitude of this invasion of their privacy.

Problem is, Facebook users have no privacy to be invaded. By way of explanation, excuse a brief legal interlude: when deciding whether or not a warrant is required to search somebody, and especially to listen to or watch him without his knowledge, courts must determine whether or not that person has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the action that’s going to be spied on. If he can reasonably expect privacy in that action (say, bathing in his house with the blinds drawn and the door locked) then a warrant is required before police can watch him doing it. If the action is one in which he cannot reasonably expect privacy (say, talking loudly to a friend in a crowded bar), no warrant is required. Police can spy at will.

We have no reasonable expectation of privacy in information we willingly post to the internet. This is especially true when the information is posted via Facebook, the sole purpose of which is to help folks keep up with the likes, interests, and status of their friends. Facebook has long tracked its users’ friendships and social webs, using the information to suggest potential new online pals. Anybody with a Facebook account knows this. Further, it’s a rare news day that lacks for stories about identity theft, hacked government offices, cyber warfare, and the like. The internet is a glass house. Anybody can see in. And if you live in a glass house… don’t expect privacy.

Extinguish your torch, drop your pitchfork, and go back to your farm, irrate villagers. Put down the placards and cancel the pickets. If you’re concerned for your privacy, redirect all that righteously indignant energy into your keyboard: log into your Facebook account and, if there’s something there you’d rather keep private… delete it.

Imagine that.