Facebook, activism and privacy

Every time I write a new blog I send a link to my Facebook friends, typically 10-20% will then look at the blog post. Use of Facebook is a minor bone of contention among activists with (at least in Ireland) a small minority who refuse to use it. They have a point, Facebook is structured in such a way that using it gives vast amounts of personal and political information out to anyone with access. The scary thing is that it turns out that even if you are careful with privacy settings that 'anyone' includes any random person who puts a quiz or another app together(see below) . Despite this I still use it both for political purposes but also for the intended social networking ones, in this blog I'm going to muse about why this is so.

If you've never given Facebook privacy much of a thought or if you think it's only a question of how you have set your accounts privacy settings think again. Even if you have set everything on your profile to 'only friends' the reality is that anytime you have answered a quiz or played farmville (or sent an anarchist gift to someone) you have given the person or corporation who wrote that app access to all your information. Privacy settings have no effect on this.

The American Civil Liberties Union have rather brilliantly demonstrated this by writing a Facebook quiz that has three questions about privacy and a fourth that asks what your going to do about it.  The clever bit is that as you answer the questions it shows you what information it can see about you by displaying a collection of your photos, updates, date of birth etc it has retrieved. And then it shows you the information you doing the quiz has enabled the ACLU to get off your friends pages. Unless they have paid a good bit of attention to their privacy settings the odds are this will be everything. If your worried at this point go to the Applications and Websites -> What your friends can share about you setting  and uncheck everything. This won't block everything, friends answering quiz's or running apps will still be providing your Name, Profile Picture, Gender, Current City, Networks, Friend List, and Pages. You can't however currently do anything at all about the fact that you provide all your information to any app you run.

At the time of writing the Facebook privacy issue has become more public thanks to a major 'own goal' trick they pulled on you. In the last week or so you probably got a notification when you logged in that they were changing the way privacy worked to help you. If you were in a hurry you probably didn't pay much attention and clicked though what looked like a standard 'ToS' notice quickly. Ooops - in doing so you made a considerable amount of information you probably had restricted to 'friends only' public. This is because that notice was telling you they were making it public and giving you a chance to switch it back. Of course they had to be aware that lots of people pay little attention to service notices and the odds were huge that large amounts of people would OK changing their settings without even knowing they had done so. I explained it to someone in work this morning and they went pale and rushed out of the room, presumably to undo the changes they had unwittingly OKed five days previously.  You might want to do the same.

The importance of the quiz issue is that while lots of activists are  suspicious of Facebook (there are persistent rumors of a CIA connection for instance) they make a conscious calculation about what level of risk is involved in giving Facebook information (everyone I'd presume knows the company itself can see all your stuff regardless of settings) and decide to use or not use it accordingly. You may well reckon that none of your activity is of much interest to the CIA or that they probably have a big fat file on your already and really the addition of some drunken party pictures won't either help them much or harm you. What you probably don't expect is that you may also be making photos of yourself available to journalists, fascists or anyone else willing to put the fairly minor effort of putting a quiz together and tricking you or your friends into taking it. Actually with photos if you have them visible to friends of friends and someone gets tagged in one that photo will become visible to their friends and anyone of them can then use the URL to download every single photo in that album with programs like Facedown.

Now any of your reading this who are my friends on Facebook (and maybe your reading this because of the link I posted there) will be saying 'but Andrew you post all sorts of stuff there.' This is true, if you want a photo of me at some rave in a field at 6am there are a selection there. Or posing with some armed guys in balaclavas (Zapatista's rather than provo's) or even sitting on a camel. In my case the decision to make these available comes not out of ignorance about the reality of online 'privacy' but rather through a rather sharp resignation to the general reality of privacy in general and the power of modern surveillance. I like to play with the consumer level technology that is now available and can therefore imagine just how powerful the stuff intelligence agencies much have access to it. Even something as straightforward as the simple face recognition software built into the latest version of iPhoto  means when I identify one person in a picture it will suggest dozens of possible matches for that person from my photo library. Or the latest camera's that will not only spot faces in photos but in the case of video automatically index them to make the selection of clips easier when your editing. I reckon the secret cops must have heads up display gear that allows them to look at a crowd and have people of interest tagged, if they don't hate it now they will soon.

Concern amoung activists about these sort of security issues isn't always consistent because of the sheer range of different ways we now automatically broadcast information about ourselves. In Seomra Spraoi on Friday I had a conversation with one Facebook skeptic who was happily typing away on their iPhone at the time. A device that broadcasts your exact location every 30 seconds or (and all mobile phones do this in some manner) and which happily geotags every photo or video you shoot with it. If your not aware of that simply uploading images to twitter probably is also allowing anyone to locate where you live, work etc. The advantage of a smartphone is that because it makes this information available to the user there is no way you can be unaware of it. Using a mapping app for instance usually starts off with the iPhone zooming in on the map to put a little blue dot on your current location, very useful when your trying to find a party on a strange street at 3am or the nearest Dublinbikes location to give two recent personal examples.  You can tell the phone to make apps ask for permission before sending your location information but in reality if your in an urban area even without the gps your location is beng constantly recorded by the provider to within 10 or so meters.

Probably every activist is aware that their phone does this (and that it's not that hard to turn a phone into a listening device) but very few throw their phones away, they accept the trade off of constantly broadcasting their location for the fact that they want to be contactable at any moment. Sometimes people get into doing not every effective stuff like getting people to turn their phones off or even removing the battery at a meeting. Imagine how that must look if your group is actually being actively monitored at the time and a load of blips all vanish at once in the same location. The only effective way I've heard of dealing with this sort of phone security is having a rule that when people arrive for a meeting they are checked for a phone and if anyone has one that's it, the meeting is off and everyone goes home. Something that sounds almost impossible to enforce in the modern context outside of extreme situations and fairly small tight groups of people with a strong pre-existing relationship.

The information Facebook provides is of a different form than what your mobile phone does and in terms of quiz's and other applications is much easier for hostile non state groups to access. By this I mean I work off the assumption that the state pretty much has full access to both phone records and Facebook information, the truth is probably more complex but its a good rule to assume. But while we can assume the state can access that information your average journalist or fascist is going to be able to get at your 'private' Facebook data a lot easier than your mobile phone data unless they happen to know someone working for the company with an unsupervised level of access. Which will sometimes be the case, we've certainly played that game the other way around. In fact its amazing how many people never even change the default code for remotely accessing their voice mail on their phone.

I like Facebook for a number of reasons but one of these is that even their crappy 'privacy' settings does provide limited protection from one bit of state interference which was a major issue for me at one point. In the time I spent in Canada I was living less than an hour from the US border and crossed it quite often for social reasons and of course for my speaking tour. At that time a common story on Canadian radio was of someone who was crossing the border, annoyed a border guard for some reason was was subsequently refused entry but the guard had used google to dig up some excuse to refuse entry. In one case an academic was refused entry on the grounds that he had admitted to taking LSD in the 1960's in an academic paper he had written! Having a border guard google me and turn up an image of me posing with armed zapatista's would probably have bad results in today's climate.

Which is why before I'd moved over I'd pulled that particular image from my old public website.  But as 'friends only' images don't show up in google I put it in a facebook album of pictures taking during the Zapatista encounter of 1996. Hardly foolproof but what I considered to be an acceptable level of risk. The CIA after all know the context and while I may have ended up on a US domestic fly watch list back in 2005 (I was 'randomly' searched on every internal flight for a period of over a year, at one point a check in clerk helpfully pointed out the code printed on my boarding pass that would result in me being taken aside) I'd be unlikely to end up in Guantanamo.  It's worked so far!

In part I tend to be mostly casual about the secret state because in Ireland it traditionally tends to be very intrusive.  That is our version of the secret police like to make sure you know you are being watched.  In the period I came into poitical activism that included stopping new faces on the street to question them almost as soon they had gone to their first event and if you were young perhaps visiting your parents to relate a fairly distorted version of what their son or daughter was getting into.  While individual incidents tend to make me angry the overall impact over time is to make you fairly indifferent about being watched, in particular when your not up to very much more than writing articles and attending protests.

Attitudes towards both Facebook and mobile phones among activists are partly created by balancing their usefulness against their disadvantages. Facebook is useful for distributing news and building hype up around events. It's also useful for getting news and other information from people you know to be smart on that issue. But this obviously isn't the only reason I use it, I like the social networking aspects of it, trawling through the old photos of people you've just met the night before, people leaving comments on twenty year old photos of me in my London squatter phase and of course all the trials and tribulations of life that get reflected in status updates.  Even beyond being resigned to the inevitability of the erosion of privacy I confess that in part I embrace it, I like both soaking up and broadcasting details of life to the world.

The trick with political usage is really no different from any usage of social networking.  Think about what information your are providing and think about the implications of it getting out from the small group of people you intended to share to with to becoming fully public.  If that is much of a risk you shouldn't be putting it online at all, the web is a very leaky sieve - unless your encrypting material before it goes up - as private spaces become bought out or terms of service provision changes.  And presume that your local secret police force can get a good look at anything you put online, it nearly always turns out that they can.  Like talking on the phone you simply should never reveal anything you don't want them to know.

This secret state aspect is why the strategy of running a second 'politics only' account can be quite flawed.  I suspect the most useful aspect of Facebook for the secret state is not in fact those pictures of you passed out at 5am but rather the mapping of networks between people.  As anyone who has watched The Wire will know in real life this is a huge amount of work requiring lots of time watching who is talking to who.  Any form of electronic data from records of mobile phone calls upwards must greatly ease this process but just think how useful a purely political Facebook account is that only links to fellow politico's without the noise introduced by the inclusion of old school friends, relations, ex girl/boy friends, random encounters etc.  This is no work, in fact there already a range of Facebook applications that will produce neat like network diagrams showing the inter relationship of all your friends.  I used to run one called Nexus regularly but that had been pulled (programmers probably got hired by the NSA) - there are a range of less elegant ones on their old page you can try out.  Anyone doing this for my Friends is going to get some misleading results, there is even a serving member of the US military in there somewhere whose only connection to my politics is being consistently on the other side!

This is another blog that has gone on longer than intended - I had intended to get into some discussion about what the much greater effectiveness of surveillance means for revolutionary politics in general.  That perhaps is a blog for another day but at the core the old stupidity of the 70's of trying to engage in both above and underground struggle simultaneously is a far bigger dead end then ever before.  Any deeper thoughts will have to wait for the future.

  


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