The collision course that both the soon-to-be users of Facebook Home and the Mumbai police department are set on is what makes the whole thing so troubling.
There are two sets of people who are looking forward to the prospect of Facebook ‘Home’ on Android. One, of course, is the group of teenage/young adults in the age range of 16 to 25, who not only partake in the externalisation of their lives through the social network, but also thrive on it.
The other is the Mumbai police department. The collision course of both these groups, besides being a train wreck-in-waiting, is the reason why Facebook Home is so troubling.
There is, of course, no doubt that ‘Home’ is the best thing Facebook could have mustered, both from a business and technological standpoint. Forking Android and producing a Facebook mobile OS would have been time-consuming, and also perhaps out of the reach of Facebook’s development team. On the other hand, another gimmick like the ‘Facebook button’ on a mobile phone would have only hurt the company’s chances.
An insidious wrapper
Nevertheless, it does not change the fact that with Home, Facebook has taken persistent data-gathering to a whole new level; wrapped in a trendy cover that millions of Facebook users will want to try out. As if what was on Facebook’s servers were not enough, this has the potential to collect among other things, home addresses and whatnot.
At this point, we are presented with an ethical dilemma. There is no debate on whether Facebook Home presents itself as an increased threat to privacy. The Mumbai police’s recent decision to set up a ‘social-media lab’ to monitor the citizens of Mumbai through Facebook and Twitter, however, only compounds the dilemma.
The most common argument to the introduction of a new piece of technology such as Facebook Home is: “If you don’t trust Facebook, you wouldn’t install Home. Others obviously trust the company with their data.. So what’s the harm? They should be allowed to do as they wish.”
At this point dilemma strikes. Should we, the tech community at large, and those who understand the true privacy implications of Home, do nothing? Is it fine because less than 10% of all people can avoid it? (This is of course excluding the small group of people who truly understand the implications involved in handing over a lot of your data to Facebook and have no problem with it.)
To this, there are two trains of thought/answers which lead me to believe that the time for the metaphorical ‘watching the world burn’ is over and that direct intervention is necessary.
The first answer to the dilemma is that the nature of technology and consequent monitoring has branched to a point that even if we leave it to the public to continue about their own ways; it will endanger us sooner or later. For instance, the Mumbai police department has now put twenty of its finest to work by sitting down and monitoring ‘social trends’.
If a friend were to tag me in anything that would be deemed inappropriate by the infamous Section 66 A of the IT Act, I could no longer take comfort in the anonymity of the social crowd so as to say. There are police monitoring us after all – if ‘liking’ a status resulted in police detention, why should be tagging without consent be any different? Likes can also result without actual clicking – Facebook viruses see to that. Therefore it is in my best interest to educate my friend before he/she tags me.
Leave the bubble
The second answer is one of moral duty. Is it truly fine for things like Facebook Home and Mumbai’s social lab to exist—just because less than 10% of all people can avoid it? Stepping outside the tech-bubble we so deeply ensconce ourselves, let us take a look at the toolbar phenomena. There are many people in the range of, let us say, 15 – 40 who are completely unable to avoid installing browser toolbars. (A side note here, browser toolbars are like little parasites, scuffing up everything while bloating your Internet surfing.)
These are not dumb people, remember. They know that some of these toolbars pass on viruses and are not really safe. But they are unable to get rid of them, because they have no idea where to look, and even if they did they wouldn’t be able to distinguish a safe program from an unsafe one. To quote Forrest Gump— shit happens, even to the smartest people. It is even worse when it happens to the more vulnerable parts of the population, like our younger brothers or sisters, or to parents.
We cannot be complacent just because Home poses no threat to those who understand it. It should bother us that we have the older population on the Internet who has no idea of what they are getting onto—and a younger generation that is increasingly growing up with the idea that there is an ‘app’ that can be downloaded for all their problems.
Both these answers put together signal that Facebook needs no apologists, what it does need is constant critique. Your personal history, your friends, what your friends like, where you went to school, where you graduated, where you began a relationship, your sexual preferences.. all laid bare. True, in the best of times, it does not matter whether the Government knows this. But do we live in those times?
We can no longer ask the Government for our privacy, we must take it back by defining it! It can only start if we make it so. Browser privacy? Use HTTPS Everywhere. Internet anonymity? Use Tor. SMS encryption? Use WhisperSystems. Digital currency? Bitcoin.
These are just tools, however. The real fight starts when we decide to define the notion of privacy on the Internet and take it from there.