The New Facebook, Security and You

On Friday night I appeared in a very short segment on KARE11 — the local NBC affiliate — to discuss the most recent Facebook changes – most specifically ‘The Timeline’. It’s funny because that was the second time this week Clockworkers made the news for Facebook, and the third time total (Netflix made for some interesting chatter this week too. But that’s another story). We sure are grateful to our friends at KARE11 for looking to us for some commentary about Facebook.

And it got me to thinking. The reason Facebook changes keep making the news is because Facebook has managed to work its way into the most fundamental elements of our culture: it’s become a primary way in which we connect with other people. We conduct whole parts of our life online now, and Facebook is really trying to capture that. That’s what this Timeline thing is all about really—it’s allowing us to tell our “whole” life story as we see it.

But then that gets broadcast to a pretty broad channel of consumers, while all the details of the story (data, really) are being aggregated to tell new stories about us to brands and marketers. I’ve read that this has been Mark Zuckerberg’s vision all along: as people share more and more data about themselves online, Facebook grows in value. It makes perfect sense that his strategy would also include forcing people to share more—however intentionally or unintentionally—by making our privacy options around each piece of data less obvious. Because that’s really what happened here, right? People are freaking out because instead of being able to specify, in a very general way, what (like photos and status updates, etc.) we share with whom, now it seems like we have to specify who we’re sharing with every single time we update our status or share anything.

As infuriating as it is, it’s sort of genius isn’t it? Influence how we behave and then mess with the most subtle aspects of that behavior to get more information from us. Genius. Because the assumption has to be that the majority of us are too lazy to spend any time figuring it out. And there’s such an overwhelming amount of information that even if we aren’t too lazy—we won’t know what’s real and what isn’t anyway.

How can we possibly protect ourselves?
A couple of weeks ago the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Advance IT Minnesota and Saint Paul College hosted a cyber security awareness forum focusing on online safety and security. I was fortunate enough to be part of a panel along with Dr. Christophe Veltsos, Faculty member in the Department of Computer Information Science at Minnesota State University, Mankato and president of PrudentSecurity LLC, an information security and privacy consulting company and Tim Fraser, Director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Stop. Think. Connect.TM campaign. (There will be video available from this forum and I’ll be sure to post it when that happens.)

You may or may not know that October is National Cyber Security Month.
President Obama called Cyber Security a critical issue and “Stop. Think. Connect.” is an important message and informational campaign presented by the Department of Homeland Security and sponsored by a large coalition of companies and brands hoping to contribute to increased awareness and education of cyber safety in America.

My contribution to the forum was really around behavior and the psychology of online behavior. We (and I’m using the collective we—a pretty broad generalization, but I’m comfortable with it) have this tendency to act victimized by what happens online. We have this weird sense of entitlement around how our information should be handled. And because of the technology layer—or, what I like to call, the layer of mysticism—we seem to want to believe it’s too complicated and the real responsibility belongs to the owners of the technology.

But our information is so widely distributed (think about how many sites on which you have profiles or where you’ve made purchases or connected with friends) and the web and online communication is so imbedded in how we function that we can no longer really think like that. We have to be less complacent and see ourselves not as victims—but as proactive citizens of digital space. The web has been mainstream for over 15 years, and still I hear people acting as if it just showed up yesterday and it is impossible to figure out. The thing is, it’s not going to slow down. We’re not going to revert back to the way things were. We can’t just throw our hands in the air and leave technology and social tools to our children, or take the word of so many “experts” to heart. Most of those “experts” are just there because they are rolling their sleeves up and diving in—not because they have any body of knowledge unavailable to the rest of us. Experts are people that play around with and think about technology and these tools. That’s all. And it’s something we all can do.

Back to Facebook
You might be asking yourself how all of this relates to the recent uproar over Facebook’s latest changes. Well, it relates plenty. See, complaining isn’t doing us any good. Facebook has proven time and time again that we are low on the list of priorities when they make changes to how the tool works. Yes it started out being a social network for the people, but our interest and willingness to share our information made the business opportunity for Facebook so much bigger than us, the users. And we’re not paying for the service. In this capitalistic society everybody knows a business needs a business model, and this one is grounded in our willingness to share information about ourselves in order for marketers to talk to us about things that are of relevance—to us.

It’s one-to-one marketing: they present us with products and services that matter to us. And they know they matter because we’ve said so, in roundabout ways. By the pictures we post, the brands we “like,” the people we associate with, the activities we enjoy, the causes we’re into. Alone these are just bits and bytes. But together they become a very rich profile—a whole story. A life story that is constantly changing.

The biggest threat to our privacy and our security is not Facebook, or viruses or hackers or any of that. The biggest threat to our privacy and security online is us. It’s how we react to all of this and everything that’s still coming at us. And the bottom line is this: if we have concerns about what we’re sharing or how our information is being used, then we owe it to ourselves to get as smart as we can about how we’re using Facebook, or any service, really. Think of it as agency instead of victimization. Then own it. I said that in the KARE11 piece and I stand by it.

On the surface the Timeline feature that Facebook is preparing to roll out is really cool. It’ll let you customize the story that you tell about yourself in ways you haven’t been able to before. A bigger, richer more expressive image can be seen on your profile page. It’s sounding like the data you share will include the things you update today and tomorrow, in addition to the pieces of your story that happened before Facebook even existed. What’s more, it’s looking like you’ll be able to share content from other networks and applications to which you subscribe. If you integrate your Hulu account and your Spotify account and your Goodreads account (there’s not a lot of information about exactly what additional apps/integrations will be available once the new Timeline launches, so I’m guessing here), then your story will include the TV shows you watch, the music you listen to and the books you read. Add your internet radio stations, your photosharing sites, your recipe exchanges and so forth and over time you’ve got an interesting story.

What will this look like?
If you do what Facebook hopes you’ll do, you’ll get your whole life working for them.

There’s Bob! He was born in 1977. He went to Catholic school. He hated his uniform. He played high school football. He went to this university. He majored in philosophy and art history. These are his friends. These are his girlfriends. Bob volunteers for this really awesome nonprofit. Bob teaches at this really amazing school. Bob married this fantastic lady. Bob reads nonfiction mostly. Bob likes ESPN and comedy central. Bob like action films. Are you with me here? Bob is more of a whole person. He reads something and maybe his friends will read it too. If Bob is into a cause and he elevates it on his Timeline, it’s likely that a few people that subscribe to Bob’s life will contribute money or volunteer themselves. Bob, this complicated, multi-dimensional guy isn’t just connecting with friends any more. Bob is now influencing people within his immediate community. But then, depending on how his privacy settings work, Bob’s sphere of influence might be bigger than even he’s aware. Beyond that though, Facebook advertisers are able to customize Bob’s ad experience so the ads speak to Bob. Furthermore, that sphere of influence that Bob may or may not be aware of interact with the info that they are privy to and that interaction turns into data points in their stories.

Get it? If they like something about Bob’s story, whether they know him or not, they are saying something about themselves. It’s a crazy, viral cycle of behavior. Or maybe it’s just physics. The law of physics on the social web—for every action there is an equal and/or opposite reaction. As cool as this is, remember: Facebook isn’t forcing you to add any information you’re not comfortable sharing.

Take back your cyberspace
What are some of the changes and what can you do?

Third-party apps
Knowledge and awareness are power. What can you do right now to ensure your Facebook experience is controlled by you? First of all, Facebook can’t force you to add information about your life prior to when you started to update your daily status in the network. That is purely voluntary. The network is also incapable of forcing you to integrate any other networks or apps—they must ask your permission. That means you do not have to approve your friends being able to see your Hulu or Spotify or Goodreads activity. You can avoid integrating third party sites and apps altogether. And you can go into your settings right now and deactivate apps that you’ve already allowed to interact with Facebook.

Be mindful of what you click on. “Read” doesn’t just mean “read” any more. You could be broadcasting information passively because you’ve given prior permission to tell the world every time you listen to or watch or read something. But again—you have to authorize these social apps before they can say anything about you. But once you do—be aware.

Everyone is futzing about the changes Facebook made to lists. Oddly, very few people ever really used them before because they were hard to find and pretty unclear. Now’s your chance. If you used them before and Facebook messed with your lists—it’s do-over time. Take advantage. If you never used lists before—welcome! Facebook wants you to use them and they’ve made them more obvious to encourage you to do it. Lists are one real way you have to control who sees what information that you share. It feels like a daunting task to start categorizing your contacts—but, honestly, it’s now or never. You might as well dive in and do it. Once you’ve segmented your friends list you can actually just share something with your family and no one else will see it. But remember—you need to specify how you share every single status update.

There’s a little fuss about the fact that you can see who “unfriends” you. I’ve got news for you: we’ve always been able to do this. Just not through Facebook. But there were a couple of third-party apps that already allowed this functionality. My advice: get over it. Honestly, if someone dumps you, that’s called life. If you dump someone, be prepared to deal with the reaction. Nine times out of ten there will be no reaction. But for that one time when someone might actually confront you, that’s called human interaction and you can choose not to talk about it. Or save them from themselves and tell them they are posting too many pics of their awesome hair. Or whatever.

Sharing Your Friends’ Comments/Likes
People seem bothered by the idea that when they Like something on a friend’s wall or worse, if they make a comment on a friend’s post, that will get shared with or seen by people they do not know.  This is true.  This can happen.  But I’m going back to my point about being proactive and encouraging Facebook users to find out how their friends share information.  I have my privacy settings set to only share my friends’ comments and Likes with my friends.  Not with everyone.  If that’s not good enough for you – then do not comment on other people’s posts.  Of course, that’s half the fun of Facebook.  And honestly, most comments are so benign, as yourself if it really matters  if they are shared.  If it does – then talk to the people who’s walls you interact with the most and ask them to get specific about who gets to see that kind of information.

Tracking your every move
There’ve been some articles about how Facebook will be able to track you when you are not on their website. Welcome to the internet. There are a couple of things to be aware of here, the first—and most obvious—is think before you sign into other websites with your Facebook login. When you do that, not only are they tracking your behavior outside of their website, but they are probably broadcasting back to all of your friends. There’s also concern that Facebook can track your activity on other sites when you are not even logged in to Facebook. Again, a lot of websites can, and probably are doing that. There is data that is collected in your browser that can track how you behave in lots of ways. But it’s not totally personal, it doesn’t necessarily identify you the individual. But let’s say Facebook can. Maybe you want to consider using another browser for your social media activity. Instead of being married to Internet Explorer, try downloading Google Chrome or Firefox or Safari and use this secondary browser for things like browsing the web, shopping and reading interesting articles. One browser cannot communicate your activity to another and that keeps your Facebook experience totally isolated and somewhat more secure.

And on and on
There is a lot more going on. And perhaps we’ll talk about more of the privacy options and concerns in the days and weeks to come. There are ways to manage your privacy. But it requires more engagement, not less. Deactivating your Facebook profile may not be the right answer. Here’s why: a couple of years back Mark Zuckerberg talked about his vision for this network of his and described Facebook as a global “utility.” What he wanted was for this social space to be as necessary as your telephone or the electricity that powers your business. With 750 Million users connecting to each other and brands and business and other cultures via Facebook, he is definitely making that vision a reality. I don’t know, and I don’t care, if Facebook will be around in 5 years. But right now there’s no denying there is a certain dependence on the network. We (again the collective ‘we’) might actually *need* it to feel connected.

Where Zuckerberg might be failing is in not recognizing the power of a network that really is for the people. But hey, maybe that’s a future roll out. And by “future” I mean next week.

Let’s celebrate National Cyber Security Month by thinking and learning about Facebook and online security, not complaining. Celebrate by taking action and being empowered, not detaching. You’ll benefit from it, we will all benefit from it. Then we go back to happily sharing photos and posts!