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Privacy Schmrivacy: Why Facebook User Data Should Be the Least of Our Concerns [OPINION]

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By Michelle Miller
I was at lunch last week with two friends discussing the demise of Facebook (as one does at lunches in Silicon Valley), and was surprised to learn how much they consider Facebook's lack of security around personal information its primary failing. They don't like the fact that Facebook has so much of their personal information, don't trust the company to protect it, and don't think Facebook will maintain its current valuation as a result.

I asked them if they trusted Google.
"Of course!"
How about Uber?
"Love Uber!"
AT&T?
"I hate them, but I don't distrust them with my information."
Wait: What?

Like it or not, all the information Facebook has is within a user's control. Your name, address, contact information: all more easily accessed because of the Internet, but all could have been found pre-Web. Those status updates? Your words. That picture of you drunk at Sigma Chi freshman year? Mortifying, but you were there.

Don't get me wrong, I hate knowing that there are pictures someone else posted of me that I cannot de-tag or remove, or wall-posts I thought were funny on a random Saturday night in 2007 forever stapled on an ex-boyfriend's timeline.

My discomfort with Facebook and the personal information on it, though, has to do with a discomfort around how people will judge things that I've done, and at one point consider wise to willingly share.

There's no doubt Facebook needs to get its act together around how it's going to allow people to prevent information about users (which is, for better or worse, factual and real) reaching people those users would prefer not have it. This is annoying, this is important. But it is not a dangerous thing.

What is a dangerous thing, though, is the ability to draw conclusions about someone based on his behavior on the Internet.

A self-employed friend of mine recently had his insurance rates skyrocket because of a survey he took about his lifestyle habits. They deemed him high risk and charged him more. He complained and I shrugged my shoulders: it wasn't pleasant, I told him, but it was fair for them to draw conclusions about his future costs knowing he smokes and doesn't sleep much. But later that day, I did a Google search for "natural remedy for headache" and, forty clicks later, was down a rabbit hole of searches that had me convinced I've got pancreatic cancer. My point? What if that health insurance company got hold of my Google searches? What if they used that data to infer my habits and risk factors and future costs?

Of course, Facebook could sell my "likes" and re-posts to other parties. Call me naïve, but I'm not super paranoid about the conclusions made about my music preferences and habit of giving a digital thumbs up to wedding announcements and charitable causes my friends support.

My search history, however....that's a different story. Seriously: have you ever taken inventory of what you Google? Keep track for a day and tell me what conclusions you'd draw about yourself given that data.

The point is: Google is scarier than Facebook because it's scarier to have inferences drawn from your actions than from what you control in photos and words and likes.

Scarier still? Location-based services.

Uber's great, isn't it? So convenient, so cashless, so coyly branded. Until you see the company monitor of a Google map with every Uber's progress across town and scroll over the car to find out who's inside. Give that a second to sink in. Oh my god. Am I seriously ready for a company to have data about everywhere I went last weekend? Am I ready for anyone to have that information? And so handily linked to my name and credit card?

Lots of people are, of course. Hence Foursquare and Facebook check-ins. But again: those are controlled, voluntary, in-the-moment intentional impulses that usually have a popularity-promoting purpose. Uber is a service with a different purpose, yet it has all that data, honest and unfiltered.

The one that scares me the most, though, is Grindr. I realize that as a straight female I don't have much right to opine on a location-based hookup app for the gay community; but I'm going to, even though I feel like an overprotective mother to my gay BFFs doing so. Why? Because it's a hate crime waiting to happen. The world is not composed of San Francisco liberals: are these men seriously trusting an app to lead them to meet strangers on the premise of their being gay? Can you imagine the horror that happens when an unstable violent homophobe creates an account? Yet most gay men I know dabble, if not actively participate, in it. Carefree. Whilst criticizing Facebook's security controls.

The truth in all this is that we're willingly hypocritical about our Internet security. Despite considerable consequences to breaches of user privacy, Google, Uber and Grindr provide (in very loveable packaging) services we value enough to convince ourselves we trust them with our information. Facebook, on the other hand, is that thing none-of-us-like-to-admit-we-use. We criticize their privacy policy because we resent our reliance on Facebook's service; we're attacking our drug dealer for not delivering an airtight bag.

In other words, Facebook's problem is one of branding, not of security. And frankly, it's probably too late to save; even that $100mm raise might not be enough to endear Facebook to its users.

So maybe it's right to let Facebook, doomed as it is, be the platform on which we sort out our relationship with personal information on the Web. But let us not, in so doing, fool ourselves into thinking password-protecting our college photos is the security that's at stake.

Originally published on Turnstylenews.com, a digital information service surfacing emerging stories in news, entertainment, art and culture; powered by award-winning journalists.

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