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Many people are upset that Facebook has been selling their personal information to various data mining companies. Recently the show Silicon Valley took a shot at the company by changing the Facebook sign to one with Russian letters in the show’s opening sequence. Soon Facebook will be making an appearance in front of Congress.

Personally I avoided joining Facebook until 2009, which was very late in the game (hundreds of millions joined before I did) considering how early I was active on the Internet in general. In the late 80s I learned the nuances of TCP/IP (IP addresses) at a company that was very early to connect their infrastructure to the Internet. In 1993 I worked on a team that deployed one of the first 75 .com web sites in the world — just after the Internet was made commercial and the web was invented. We included Mosaic (the first web browser and precursor to Netscape) on all PCs and Macs that same year. Point being that early adoption of technology has been a big part of what I have done over the years. When it came to Facebook — it was different. I just couldn’t bring myself to put my personal info on the web.

I worked at Harvard Business School when Mark Zuckerberg was a student and started hacking the various Harvard IT environments to gain access to student data. By the time I joined Facebook I understood the risks to my personal information. I also took the time to play around with the site to attempt to understand how my info might be used. It is impossible to completely understand this unless you work at Facebook — but there are some very simple ways to minimize your exposure.

Basic Measures

There are three simple things one can do to reasonably protect personal information while using the site:

  1. Do not use your Facebook credentials to login into other stuff. Use your own username and password on other sites. This feature was not created for your convenience — it was created for the benefit of Facebook.
  2. Shut off “Platform Applications”. This is currently called “Apps, Websites and Games”. The name of this feature has changed over the years — but to Facebook’s credit they have honored the off setting throughout all of their updates. This means you cannot link your Facebook account to anything else and thus cannot play games, etc on the site. If it is turned on — some of your data leaves Facebook’s hands — which you have already agreed to.
  3. Do not participate in data mining posts. You know the posts that read “what was the first concert you attended?” People respond — because it is fun to. However the answer to that question is also a standard security question on many sites. These posts are not created for fun — they are created to mine people’s info.

Ultimately I joined Facebook for the same reasons everyone else did — to connect with the people from various stages of life, post fun pictures, etc. However, I did so fully understanding that whatever I put on the site is a gift to the Facebook corporation. A corporation that is in business to make money. I got to a place where I accepted the exposure in order to participate.

Facebook is currently the 4th most valuable company in the world (based on market capitalization). They sit behind only Apple, Google and Amazon. All of their revenue is derived from advertising — same as Google. The world of Ad Tech is one of the most complex environments humans have ever concocted. This space attracts scientists (literally) that spend their days trying to optimize ads on websites and mobile devices via algorithms that determine what ads to put in front you you. That process rests entirely on the ability to track your information and movements on the Internet. Again, 2 of the 4 most valuable companies in the world make all of their money from this process.

How did we get here?

How did we end up in a place where personal digital surveillance is going on constantly?

It’s simple — we want free stuff.

There was a site called that launched years before Myspace or Facebook. It was built around the idea that you could connect to your current and old classmates on the web. Sound familiar? The catch was it cost money to join — so no one did. If they had made it free they perhaps could have been what Facebook became — they had the idea years before Zuckerberg did. But we expect content on the Web to be free. We’ll pay for Internet access — but that’s pretty much it. The same way our grandparents would pay for a TV but not for the content. The first 30 years of TV was also built entirely on an advertising model.

Facebook, Google, etc have billions of dollars in expenses — thousands of employees and massive network infrastructures, such as this one:

The surveillance they have on us is what pays for it all. The money has to come from somewhere. Would you prefer to pay for the individual services or keep participating in the surveillance? What is privacy worth?

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