Thursday, May 13, 2010

cruft, dandruff, and predictive models

Facebook and its principle founder, Mark Zukerberg, are taking a good deal of heat lately about changes that affect users' ability to keep things out of public view. Despite some overblown rhetoric, there's some real basis for concern.

Am I worried? Yes, a bit. In FB as in life in general, I try to be cautious but not compulsively private in sharing information about myself. I don't do much FB statusing and adjust my settings every time I hear there's been a privacy change. I realize, must not we all, that there's much available about me which I can't control. I try to surrender my social security number as little as possible and it used to annoy me that my work ID contained an SSN barcode. It concerns me that financial institutions have required I give it to them when I've applied for a credit card, opened an account, or applied for a mortgage. I know that my accounts with utility companies, wireless & landline phone providers, and my ISPs yield up publicly available information about my use of their services. Many companies with which I do business accumulate information about me which they can, and under certain circumstances, freely do share. When I've bought the homes I've lived in, a whole raft of information became publicly available about the transactions.

I used to be amazed at how sloppy some organizations were about account data; quite often I found I could search membership data in unprotected files. That's less common now, but no matter how grand a privacy policy sounds, I know I really can't control what an organization does with the personal information I give it. Despite good intentions, some are inept or maybe just naïve. And any commercial enterprise is liable to be bought out by some other organization which can choose to ignore whatever privacy promises the old org. made. Even nonprofits get absorbed by others or go commercial with resulting nullification of whatever policies they had.

I suspect most of us know that the computer we're using supplies information about itself when we're online. There are a number of web sites that show you this info, this one, for example. You probably also know that programs which put spyware in web cookies can accumulate a whole lot more about your internet sessions.

It's the business of data snoops to accumulate this information along with every thing else they can tag as pertaining to you, your computer, and the use you make of it. Many people now assume that all their email traffic is subject to either machine or human inspection, or both.

These are some of the reasons people are growing increasingly concerned about recent changes in Facebook's privacy policy. Facebook is a huge success and, in using it, its vast numbers of participants give enormous amounts of information about themselves — that's the point of this primo social network. The potential for abusing that information is also very great. I've noticed that Facebook apps are increasingly apt to have invasive elements in them and the recent furore is mostly about FB's policy of making certain info you give FB available to all its users, certain of it accessible to search engines outside FB, and certain of it available to FB advertisers; it's also about the complexity of privacy controls and gaps in what you can keep from public view; and it's about the difficulty of getting off FB and deleting what you've put there.

Columbia law professor Eben Moglen summarized the risk in a speech last February:
The Problem is the Cruft and Data Dandruff of Life: In fact the degree of potential informational inequality, and disruption and difficulty that arises from a misunderstanding, a heuristic error in the minds of human beings about what is and is not discoverable about them, is now our biggest privacy problem. My students ... show constantly in our dialog they still think of privacy as the one secret they don't want revealed. But that's not their problem. Their problem is all the stuff that's the ... data dandruff of life, which they don't think of as secret at all but aggregates to stuff they don't want to know. Which aggregates not just to stuff they don't want other people to know, but to predictive models about them which they would be very creeped out to know exists at all. The data that we infer is the data in the holes between the data we already know if we know enough things.
This isn't very precise, but captures the main cause of concern. A whole mess of facts, each by itself benign, can be assembled and put to a nasty purpose.

{sources: PCWorld,, }

Here are some links about the current noise regarding Facebook.
Has Facebook gone too far this time? (

Weekly Wrap-up: Deactivating Facebook, Social Oversharing, iPad vs. Netbooks, And More... (ReadWriteWeb)

Facebook Privacy: A Bewildering Tangle of Options (New York Times)

Could a start-up called Diaspora knock Facebook off its perch? (Christian Science Monitor)

Facebook's Washington Problem, The social network is facing a privacy backlash that could prompt congressional hearings (Business Week)

Europe slams Facebook's privacy settings (Agence France Presse)

Facebook Gives Us Statement On Latest Zuckerberg IM And Company Privacy Policy (SFGate)

Facebook Privacy: A Bewildering Tangle of Options (NYT again)

19-Year-Old Facebook CEO Didn’t Take Your Privacy Seriously, Either (Gizmodo)

Facebook: Facts You Probably Didn’t Know (Mashable)

Facebook confirms informal company meeting (CNET News)

Mum's the word from all-hands Facebook company meeting on privacy (NetworkWorld)

Facebook downplays privacy crisis meeting (BBC)

Facebook caves in to privacy pressures; Sort of, partly (Inquirer)

Your public Facebook status updates? Now publicly searchable outside Facebook (TechCrunch)

Anti-Facebook project rockets to $120,000 in online donations (VentureBeat)

Blogrunner Facebook news snapshot (NYT)

Facebook downplays privacy crisis meeting

This Is MySpace’s Moment To Shine, But That Obviously Isn’t Going To Happen (TechCrunch)

Facebook Adds Two Privacy Tools (Information Week)

Are privacy concerns causing an about face on Facebook? (

How to delete your Facebook account forever (
NY Times Graphic on Privacy Settings

{click to view full size; source: Facebook Privacy: A Bewildering Tangle of Options (New York Times)}



Mark Zuckerberg was born in White Plains, which is not far east of the path taken by the old Croton Aqueduct, and he was raised in Dobbs Ferry through which the aqueduct passed on its way to Manhattan. The green line marks its route. Click image to view it full size.

{USGS, White Plains, NY Quadrangle, 1938, southwest corner; source: UNH DIMOND LIBRARY
Documents Department & Data Center}

Also, as it happens, my great-uncle Adolph Windmuller and his wife Caroline Hague lived in Dobbs.

I've written a few posts about the aqueduct and Mrs. Hague:

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