19 April 2012
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Facebook's Secret

I'm not a privacy whiner.  I don't have a lot to hide, and what I do I simply never mention.  As it's been said, two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead, and I rarely wish that kind of ill on anyone*.  Occasionally I'll offer an easy-to-remember lie when I have to provide information on an internet form, more to keep in practice than because the information is sacred.  In general, I try to be discreet and not give away information to which I'm privy.  You probably haven't heard about any RIKL internet scandals, congressional investigations, or SEC hearings.  Unfortunately, you also haven't heard about any hundred-billion dollar valuations.  In effect, I'm the anti-Facebook.

In that sense, Facebook has a Majorana**-like anti-RIKLness.  And they love to give away information, especially if it's yours.  But guess what!  I discovered a secret privacy leak that hasn't been disclosed by any of the muckrakers or bloggers that are perpetually complaining about something or other Facebook is doing or isn't doing or has randomly changed, to the blogger's enormous, if temporary, chagrin.  This is big, in a small sort of way.

One day while I was looking at my Facebook page, disregarding the invisible ads and trying to figure out how to suppress the idiotic gambling, shooting, farming, and horoscope app blandishments, I noticed a certain name on the "People You May Know" list.  I'm always seeing certain names, albeit different ones, in that list.  They fit into three categories:  People I actually do know, e.g.,

  • Real-world friends who aren't yet "friends" but who are "friends" of my "friends"

  • "Friends" of my "friends"

Along with people I actually have never heard of, whose names I always assumed that Facebook was picking up randomly as part of an overwrought algorithm. 

But wait!  The name I suddenly noticed didn't fit any of the above.  Although he was on Facebook, and is and was a real-world acquaintance, we have no Facebook commonality at all.  There is no way a Facebook algorithm would pick him over the hundreds of millions people that are never recommended for association.  It either made a prescient guess or had some way of "knowing" that we somehow knew each other.  How?

He was looking me up on Facebook, that's how. 

Are you scared yet?  No?  Think about it for another minute.  You decide to search for an old flame, enemy, boss, or candi-date.  You want to do this anonymously for reasons obvious or otherwise, and you assume that simply putting someone's name in the Facebook search engine is a way of accomplishing it.  Next thing you know (or don't know), your name pops up on the searchee's list of "People You May Know."  Facebook has decided based on your search that the person you're searching for may know you.  You've been shopped.

Now are you scared? 

I'm not, at least not terribly so.  Occasionally I look up someone in idle curiosity, with no intention of "friending" or contacting the person, and certainly with no intention of the person contacting me in any way.  Has my random search planted a seed of unwelcome curiosity?  Has one of your searches?  I wonder how the privacy squad will react when this Facebook "feature" becomes known.

Speaking of Facebook and That $100 Billion Valuation

When I joined Facebook a year or so ago, I rapidly acquired a modest number of "friends."  This acquisition binge reached an asymptote of about two per month some time ago, which is probably counterbalanced by Facebook dropouts.  One might, therefore, assume that the volume of updates, "stories," notices, etc., would have reached an equilibrium.  Alas it has not.  It has grown to the point that instead of being eager to see what people are up to, the sheer volume of drivel adulterating the occasional thoughtful or newsworthy item has reached the point of discouragement. 

Facebook has achieved a notable monetary worth by aggregating "eyeballs" such as mine.  I allow them to do this because their system is free and I know I can ignore it when I wish.  But their advertising grows increasingly obtrusive and strident and their privacy practices are scary to many.  It would take very little, such as an even minimal charge, to drive me away from ever using them.  Are hundreds of millions of other users on the fence, too?  How much are we really worth when our loyalty is so tenuous?

*  Which doesn't mean that I won't eventually get some sort of revenge on the water company and their non-conciliatory representative Tammy.

** Fascinating story I read the other day.  Ettore Majorana, of particle-anti-particle fame, disappeared!  Read it on Wikipedia, of course.

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