Thursday, July 12, 2012

Online privacy and social networks

I've got mixed feelings about the news that social networks - Facebook in particular, but other platforms as well - are actively monitoring user's chat sessions, and referring conversations that they regard as 'suspicious' to law enforcement.  Reuters reports:

Facebook is among the many companies that are embracing a combination of new technologies and human monitoring to thwart sex predators. Such efforts generally start with automated screening for inappropriate language and exchanges of personal information, and extend to using the records of convicted pedophiles' online chats to teach the software what to seek out.

Yet even though defensive techniques are now available and effective they can be expensive. They can also alienate some of a site's target audience -- especially teen users who expect more freedom of expression. While many top sites catering to young children are quite vigilant, the same can't be said for the burgeoning array of online options for the 13- to 18-year-old set.

"There are companies out there that are doing a very good job, working within the confines of what they have available," said Brooke Donahue, a supervisory special agent with an FBI team devoted to Internet predators and child pornography. "There are companies out there that are more concerned about profitability."

. . .

A solid system for defending against online predators requires both oversight by trained employees and intelligent software that not only searches for improper communication but also analyzes patterns of behavior, experts said.

The better software typically starts as a filter, blocking the exchange of abusive language and personal contact information such as email addresses, phone numbers and Skype login names. But instead of looking just at one set of messages it will examine whether a user has asked for contact information from dozens of people or tried to develop multiple deeper and potentially sexual relationship, a process known as grooming.

Companies can set the software to take many defensive steps automatically, including temporarily silencing those who are breaking rules or banning them permanently. As a result, many threats are eliminated without human intervention and moderators at the company are notified later.

. . .

The gaping hole in the defense of Facebook and many other sites popular with teens is that minors can easily make up a birth date and pretend to be adults -- and adults can pretend to be minors, as happened with Skout, which declined an interview request.

There's more at the link, including many examples of predators using social networks.  Recommended reading, particularly for parents of children and teenagers.

My problem is this.  It's all very well to say that we must protect children from exploitation in this way:  but Big Brother can (and does) use that excuse to monitor all sorts of conversations and interactions that have nothing to do with children in any way, shape or form.  If one protests, the knee-jerk reaction from the 'safety nazis' is to accuse one of being dangerously short-sighted, perhaps even deliberately negligent, in safeguarding children online.  It's not easy to defend oneself against such accusations, particularly because there have been incidents of child molestation and endangerment resulting from online interaction.

Should we permit or tolerate such intrusion into our privacy on the grounds that it's the only way to safeguard younger users of social media?  Or should we insist on our right to greater privacy?  If the latter, might we not simply have to walk away from social media and find other ways to communicate?  If we do that, will the 'safety nazis' follow us to our new venues and try to monitor them as well, on the grounds that they may also be used for nefarious purposes?  How can we stop that?

We also have the problem that many other electronic communication channels are 'mined' for data by companies that don't give a fig for our privacy.  Google, Yahoo, etc. mine our e-mails for data they can use to target advertisements at us;  all sorts of companies track our Internet usage in various ways without so much as a 'by your leave';  companies build vast databases of information about us and sell it to whoever will pay their fees;  our own government monitors our communications on the grounds of 'national security' . . . the list is endless.  Our last vestiges of privacy are growing vanishingly small, and I for one greatly resent and dislike that.  I want to do something about it . . . but what?

How can we obtain or achieve greater privacy in the electronic age?  It's a conundrum for which I have no easy answers.  I'd be grateful for readers' opinions in Comments.



Anonymous said...

I don't know, Peter: my choice to date has been to spurn Facebook, Twitter, and any Google involvement beyond their search engine. You, especially as a blogger, have a different and greater challenge. I've always treated internet communications just like unencrypted radio comms. Anything said will be heard by multiple parties you can't identify or control.

While I feel reasonably secure using my shunning approach, I recognize that social media accounts of my friends and family members can unintentionally expose even more information about me beyond my control.

The incredible convenience of modern high=speed communications is both a blessing and a burden when it comes to privacy.


JohninMd(help) said...

Yup. Forget protecting teh kiddies, those of us who share our political views, who don't...approve...of the current situation are looked at w/ suspicion by authorities anyway, and if you set up an incrypted network you can bet you move up a few places in the NSA's code bustin' to-do list.

perlhaqr said...

How can we obtain or achieve greater privacy in the electronic age?

Encryption. I don't use Facebook chat or whatever, but there's a piece of software (most easily used with Pidgin, a standalone IM client) called OTR (Off The Record) that does end to end traffic encryption for IM protocols. What the carrier can't see, it can't intercept and read.

Borepatch said...

How can we obtain or achieve greater privacy in the electronic age?

You can't, at least with Social Media. I'm afraid that I disagree with Perlhaqr - even with Tor and Stegonography there's too much data leakage. Traffic Analysis will lead any determined analyst to you, if they're willing to work.

Rev. Paul said...

The only way to protect what's left of privacy would be to revert to primitive technology: no internet, no credit cards, no charge accounts, and be on a cash economy. Even then, your purchases are tracked (although often anonymously). Oh - and no cell phones, either.

The system is designed to gather info. It's almost impossible to avoid that.

trailbee said...

Those of us who do not twitter or use facebook are a small minority. We have strong feelings of "uebersicht" and how intrusive it really is. I don't think there is anything we can do, except continue on and keep trying to find the perfect foil for the snoops.

Roy said...

It's been said before but again, on so called "free" social media sites, you are the product, not the customer. The customers are those who would mine those sites for data about you, mostly to target you for their own products.

I don't worry too much about the NSA and agencies like that. I'm one of 300 million. And as long as I treat on-line communications as "not private", I will remain anonymous to them.