May 22, 2010

Is Facebook One of a New Class of Cyber Bullies?

Posted in Courts and social media, Criminal activity, Facebook, LinkedIn, Social networking policy at 2:04 am by bizlawblog


I’ve been looking for an excuse to get back to blogging. Like many who write blogs, I had a little burn out and I had a feeling that the “white paper” type posts I was writing were at least a little more than the average blog reader wanted to wade through on a regular basis. I’ve taken some time off to contemplate how and what to write, but the right topic didn’t come up. Now it has and I’m back.

What rang my bell was the thought that there was something of a similarity between cyber bullying and what some of the largest and most powerful social media platforms seem to be doing these days. I hope the juxtaposition of these two concepts will not be offensive to anyone. I do understand that the classic cyber bullying situation can be horrible and even lead to suicide and a whole host of other tragedies.

Likewise, in my humble opinion, it seems some of our largest social media channels may be engaging in a commercial version of cyber bullying. According to The Division of Criminal Justice Services:

Cyber bullying is the repeated use of information technology, including e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, chat rooms, pagers, cell phones, and gaming systems, to deliberately harass, threaten or intimidate others. Unlike physical bullying, where the victim can walk away, technology now allows for continuous harassment, from any distance, in a variety of ways.

While cyber bullying is often done by children who have increasing access to these technologies, it is by no means confined to children. The problem is compounded by the fact that bullies are often anonymous and never have to confront their victims. This makes it difficult to trace the source, and encourages bullies to behave more aggressively than a traditional “physical world” bully.

I know that what I’m suggesting is not literally true, in that these companies are not necessarily “harassing” anyone, but what they are doing may be causing harassment, threats, and intimidation. If you have been reading the recent stories about the changes Facebook has made over the last year or so to its privacy policies, you may start to understand where I’m going with this.

Facebook and some other major players in the social media world have been busy tweaking their privacy policies for a while now. Every time they do, with the corresponding “we’re looking out for you” PR statements, they end up getting worse press than before. Assuming what I say is true, one must ask why they are doing this.

It seems to me the business model of Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media channels, includes a plan to induce those who use their services to use them more, and to draw their friends and colleagues in to the net as well. Since these are “free” services, for the most part, this might not seem too bright. The more users each one has, however, the more they are arguably worth, both in terms of stock prices, and, for those interested in eventually finding a way to effectively monetize them. There are now paid ads on all the biggies, so the link between number of users and cash can’t be too hard to figure out.

As a result, we find Facebook filling up with what some might find to be silly games, like Farmville. The Facebook page for this game even admits:

Allowing FarmVille access will let it pull your profile information, photos, your friends’ info, and other content that it requires to work.

That, of course, would seem to be the idea. Start playing this game, invite your friends to play with you, and all of a sudden, Facebook has information it can use about you and your friends. In other words, you’ve connected the dots for them in a way they could not have otherwise developed data. This is so blatant, there is even an AddictingGames group on Facebook, where users share information about games which are intentionally addicting, as if it was a “good thing.”

Now this might not be too bad, other than the addicting part, if Facebook was simply collecting the data to make the user experience more enjoyable. It appears, however, that they may be a little more mercenary and less eleemosynary than that. A number of recent stories have told a tales some of us expected, based upon disturbing trends in Facebook’s privacy policy.

The Wall Street Journal finally broke a story, stating that:

Facebook, MySpace and several other social-networking sites have been sending data to advertising companies that could be used to find consumers’ names and other personal details, despite promises they don’t share such information without consent.

Advertising companies are receiving information that could be used to look up individual profiles, which, depending on the site and the information a user has made public, include such things as a person’s real name, age, hometown and occupation.

Several large advertising companies identified by the Journal as receiving the data, including Google Inc.’s DoubleClick and Yahoo Inc.’s Right Media, said they were unaware of the data being sent to them from the social-networking sites, and said they haven’t made use of it.

Perhaps coincidentally, Facebook, has recently undergone the largest and probably the most controversial transformation yet of its privacy policy. The New York Times and many others have recently reported the extent to which the policy length and complexity have changed:

Pop quiz: Which is longer, the United States Constitution or Facebook’s Privacy Policy?

If you guessed the latter, you’re right. Facebook’s Privacy Policy is 5,830 words long; the United States Constitution, without any of its amendments, is a concise 4,543 words.

Facebook, one of the most popular social networks in the world, has more than 400 million registered people on its Web site. Half of these users log in to the service every day, the company says, and users spend 500 billion minutes on the site each month.

But in recent months, Facebook has revised its privacy policy to require users to opt out if they wish to keep information private, making most of that information public by default. Some personal data is now being shared with third-party Web sites.

Another interesting New York Times article shows some very interesting graphical depictions of both the rapid increase in length of the Facebook privacy policy and the complexity. While the granularity of the policy may be a good thing, allowing users to pick and choose what they share and what they supposedly don’t, the user interface and default “let them see everything” model would seem more likely than not to increase the opportunity for Facebook, and others, to now collect substantially more user data than before.

I find it difficult to believe Facebook and others are collecting this data, sending it to advertisers, and the advertisers neither know they have it, nor intend to find a use for it. This comes on the heels of news that Google has been collecting more than pictures with the StreetView cars it has been sending around the globe. As reported by the ars technica blog recently:

Google has admitted that it has been “mistakenly” collecting payload data from open WiFi networks as its Street View cars drove around taking pictures. The company said that it never used any information about who was using those networks and what sites they were visiting, but the company has nonetheless decided to completely stop collecting WiFi data from its Street View cars.

Perhaps just as bad is the sudden realization that many of these social applets are more useful to criminals than to anyone else. One that has bothered me for a while, is the trip application you see on various social media channels. You know the one. It lets you tell everyone that you’re going on an important trip to Dallas or New York to hammer out a great deal or taking an expensive trip with the family to some exotic destination. You can even keep everyone glued to their screens, as they follow your progress.

One industry that seems particularly interested in those taking these trips would be your everyday cyber criminal. Danielle Hatfield points out in her article, Please Rob Me – Location Based Social Networking Burglary:

Social sites like Localtweeps make it easy for thieves to find Twitter users to size up based on zip code.

Yep, that’s right. While you are busy checking in at home, work, the grocery, your favorite restaurant . . . even your child’s school. . . (What the HELL are you thinking?!) There are people just waiting for your next move . . . plotting your habits and sizing you and your home up.

There are ways to responsibly use Location-based social networking, but checking into every single place you visit on a daily basis . . . especially your home – is not it.

I admit that what I’m getting at does not involve some big kid who is going to steal your lunch money. That’s not the type of cyber bully I’m talking about. I am talking about some hugely popular social media channels, that may have gotten so big and powerful, they feel it their right to plunder their customers’ personal data, just like the school bully who took the lunch money from the smaller, weaker student on his way to the cafeteria. The bully always picks the weaker target. The bully believes in easy pickings, rather than a fight among equals. Is it not the power of Facebook and other SM channels that may have gone to the head of those who run it.

Regardless of intent, it seems, from where I’m sitting, that Facebook and others are not much better than the school yard bully. The actions of both result from being bigger and more powerful than those they are dealing with (i.e. we users). Likewise, these bullies are essentially “anonymous and never have to confront their victims. This … encourages [the] bullies to behave more aggressively than a traditional ‘physical world’ bully.”

One thing bullies don’t like is for someone to stand up to them. That someone has to be a collective “us,” if we are to stop being bullied by the size and power of organizations like Facebook, into giving away our personal information and our friend’s data as well. It is time to stop playing those games, and get serious about protecting ourselves, our families, and our businesses. Having gone through a cycle of identity theft a few years ago, and having had it raise its ugly head again recently, even though the original thief is now in jail, I can tell you that these online bullies can do every bit as much harm as the big kid who shook down smaller students for their lunch money.

That’s what I think. Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.
If you are really interested, I just started yet another free group on LinkedIn, Social Media Search and Forensics. Many of these articles and discussion about them are posted there. Please join us.

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1 Comment »

  1. bizlawblog said,

    Nice article: How to document harassment and cyberstalking on Twitter
    http://thebrandbuilder.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/how-to-document-harassment-and-cyberstalking-on-twitter/


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