Does Facebook have a poison tooth?

Opinion: You can fight back against privacy abuses

Editor’s note:  If you do not have a sense of humor do not read this.  Please know the law, know your rights and don’t do anything illegal.

Facebook logoIf you are annoyed at Facebook’s repeated trampling on your rights, barely skirting legality, and selling you out to any sketchy third party that hands them cash, you can fight back. No, don’t dump facebook, that does no good, the only way to fight back is to poison them, so lets all poison Facebook together.

The problem is simple, Facebook has written such one-sided, unconscionable terms of use that you have less than no rights, you are a way for them to make money, and they can punish you if you try to protect your rights. They keep changing their privacy policy in ways meant to prevent people from saying no, and simply do what they want.

If there is enough hue and cry, they back off a little, and then come back with something far more sinister. Officially, the company is all happy and never violates your privacy in an abusive way, when people complain, they get answers like this. To quote a Facebook staffer, selling private information is bad, “Facebook has never sold email addresses or any information to anyone, and to say that we have is just flat out irresponsible.” Sounds good, right? Until you listen to what people higher up the food chain are saying, your stomach will churn.

Then step forward a few months, and they throw out anything even remotely related to user privacy. If you put it on Facebook, woe betide the mere user that values privacy over their making of money. You don’t matter, that much is clear. If there is something that Facebook finds lucrative but the users find abhorrent, it is only a ‘glitch‘ away from being a profit center.

Heck, it doesn’t need to be a glitch, just a well timed change in policy that is adjusted hours later after an outcry. If purchasers are pre-briefed, primed and ready, it just takes seconds for the payments to clear, and a few more to download the data. Do this once a year, followed by a quick ‘backpedal’ in public, and job done. With enough PR, you can even make the majority of users believe that it is a good thing, and they ‘won’ this round.

So, what is a user to do? Facebook will not let you keep your privacy, and they will not give you the tools to do so. There is no way for the average user to actually negotiate their privacy with Facebook, it’s either agree or leave. If there happens to be a way for the user to do the right thing, then it is obviously ‘redesign’ time, a virtual scavenger hunt for your rights that seems impossible to break even at, much less win. Imagine that, it almost looks obtuse by design, but they would never do that, right?

Dropping Facebook doesn’t do anything, if you read the Q&A with Mr Schrage above, he says that if you delete the account, it deletes some of your info, eventually, but it can’t be tied to you anyway. What he doesn’t say is that if that info has been harvested and put in other databases, do they delete that? If they make a list of all Facebook users every week and sell that, and you drop, does that list get scrubbed of your quite valuable info, or just no longer updated? Anyone want to place bets here?

If you drop them, it is pretty obviously a one way street. Cory Doctrow, Leo Laporte and others may have dumped the service, but what good does that do? As an aside, are they, or any other high profile refuseniks still gone? There is one way to make a difference, and to make Facebook sit up and take notice. You can fight back.

How? Easy, you poison the data ie give them a hollow tooth. It is well within your power, and it is the only thing Facebook will notice. Your data, given voluntarily or not, is extremely valuable in aggregate. It is used by unscrupulous advertisers to play a big numbers game. Like spammers, they spit out thousands, millions or billions of feelers at a time, usually at almost no cost per email or ad, and hope to get a return on a vanishingly small percentage.

If you can send an email advertising a $10 product to 100 million people for a cost of $100, that is a cost of 1/10,000th of a cent per person. You can sent hundreds of thousands of them for the cost of a postage stamp. All you need is 10 people out of 100 million to buy, and you are at break-even. 11 and you are profitable. That is the game that Facebook, late night TV infomercials, spammers, and everything else that makes you sad about society plays.

It is raw numbers, and sadly, it works. If it didn’t, you would not be seeing so many offers from your widowed Nigerian relatives, even things as obvious and stupid as that makes a lot of money. Facebook may be more palatable and accepted, but it is the same game.

Lists of their users are valuable, very valuable, for this reason, they are ‘known good’, and very clean. If you can narrow down the list of targets by access to a lot of data mining, you up the chances of getting hits, buys, or whatever you are looking to do with those people. The higher the quality, the higher the value. This is why Facebook keeps forcing you to use more and more personal info before you can ‘opt-in’ to their services, the more they have, the more it is worth.

If you have ever wondered why you have to put in your social security number (pick a piece of data here) to play a new game or look at a photo album, wonder no more. It is opt-in though, they value your privacy. On paper. Just ask. But there is no way around giving up your privacy, even in cases where the data is totally irrelevant to the end result. Don’t bother asking there. Same with modern contests, there are no ‘instant win’ tickets any more, but you can SMS a code, along with your name, address and phone number, to see if that ticket wins. If you put in false info to keep your privacy and you win, you lose. A soft drink company may be giving away $500K in prizes, but they generate a list worth 10 times that from it. That is the game.

It only works if the info is valid, and it only takes a very small percentage of fake info to break the system. Anyone who has had the happy task of cleaning up a database of names, addresses and phone numbers will tell you that it only takes a few minor errors make life hell.

Getting back to Facebook, this is how you can retain some privacy. Put in different but valid info,  ie give them a poison hollow tooth in their databases, and mark it private. If they don’t use the info against your will, there is absolutely no problem with that being there. The only reason that they will ever see it or use it is if they violate their promises to you. At that point, they have the problem. If they are clean, it will never affect them at all, it is the data equivalent of the poison pill.

How do you poison the information? You could just make up random and wrong phone numbers, emails, and such things. That is one level, but is far too, well, non-creative. How boring is that? If a telemarketer is sold a list of phone numbers, they will just get fast-busy or error on a false phone number, and that will be mechanically screened out. That is not really a problem for them, just a minor miss.

If a telemarketer sends hundreds of calls a day to a large cable TV talk show, want to bet there will be an investigation into the company in very short order? How about a terrorism tip hotline, most people would say that intrusive telemarketers are morally equivalent to terrorists, right? The FCC’s complaint line? The same works for email, mail and almost any other information.

Please know that we are not advocating doing anything illegal, spying isn’t illegal is it?  Don’t put in emergency numbers or things that will deprive people in need, more fun are things that will bring retribution on the marketers that abuse your information. Let them do the work of filing a de facto complaint for you. Trust me, the FCC, FTC and most news outlets find this kind of thing hilarious.

Likewise, photo identification and face recognition software is fragile on a good day. If you put up a photo of your close friends on a camping trip, they know who they are, and you do to. The Facebook algorithm will probably not be able to differentiate between them and a list of Congressional freshman though. You and your wife labeled Gene and Ina Autry would be a a tribute to your favorite singer, right?  You get the idea. Putting up pictures of Glenn Beck and visiting sites known to pull pictures and silently use them for ‘recommendations’ and ‘endorsements’ can lead to all sorts of unintended hilarity and legal filings. The possibilities are endless.

So in the end, you have all the power you need to take control of your privacy on the internet. You can do it in a way that will never be used by anyone should Facebook and their ‘partners’ abide by their promises. If they change policies in devious ways meant to make it technically possible but realistically impossible to guard your privacy, they call the FCC, FTC and Better Business Bureau for you.

The way to win is not to leave Facebook, the real question is do they have poison in that hollow tooth? The only way to find out is if they violate your privacy. If you think that will never happen, to quote the head of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, “They ‘trust me’. Dumb f*cks.” S|A

Editor’s note:  If you do not have a sense of humor do not read this.  Please know the law, know your rights and don’t do anything illegal.

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate