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Identity crisis

Dear Facebook, can I have my life back please?

Read time 6min 10sec

If money makes the world go round, advertising provides the fuel. Getting people to buy stuff is where the future of social networking lies, as our identities become tools for marketers to craft personalised sales pitches.

Protecting one's privacy is not an inconvenience, it's a right.

Lezette Engelbrecht, online features editor, ITWeb

Back when social networks were starting out, they seemed to offer exactly that - a social place to engage with people... a little piece of cyberspace to make your own. naïve maybe, thinking you could retain ownership of your personal details, but it seemed relatively harmless at the time. Now, while the signs have been there all along, it's like glancing up during lunch with a friend and seeing some stranger recording your every word. Making little notes about what you ordered, checking out your outfit, scribbling and storing, scribbling and storing, carving your personality into pieces they can sell.

Facebook has come under fire this week for its new Timeline and related applications, with users grumbling about privacy, like they do every time changes are introduced, before settling down and happily adopting all the new features. The very concept of privacy seems almost quaint in a world where virtually every piece of data we create is stored somewhere.

Signing up to Facebook comes with the acknowledgment that the company owns your information; not ideal, but not enough to deter the 750 million people using it. But the fact that Mark Zuckerberg and co can track what users do even when they're logged out of the network seems every bit like social stalking to me.

This “frictionless sharing” feature (the friction ostensibly being the user's permission), which allows Facebook to keep tabs on the sites people visit through its “share” and “like” buttons, is taking it too far.

What people do on third-party sites should not be any of Facebook's business. And if it is going to intrude, it needs to do a far better job of telling users exactly what they're signing up for. A permission box pops up the first time you share something on a site, and after that activities are automatically shared with Facebook. It may be “frictionless”, but it's also pretty underhanded.

After so-called hacker Nik Cubrilovic pointed out the potential security risks, a Facebook engineer was quoted saying: “Please know that also when you're logged in (or out) we don't use our cookies to track you on social plugins to target ads or sell your information to third parties. I've heard from so many that what we do is to share or sell your data, and that is just not true.”

Pull the other one, Zuckerberg.

The problem is that Facebook has become such an extensive base of user information that other companies are lining up to act as accomplices in the online spying. Music streaming service Spotify, for example, announced that new users will have to register via Facebook, as opposed to signing up with a user name and password - all in the name of a “seamless experience”. It forgets that protecting one's privacy is not an inconvenience, it's a right.

The move also shows it will become increasingly difficult to avoid Facebook's all-seeing eye, even if you're not a member. What happens when there's hardly anything we can do online without Facebook knowing about it?

Hide and seek

While Facebook is working on becoming the biggest stream, Google is planning how to control the river all the streams flow into. It's banking on a line every in-store sales person knows by heart: “What are you looking for?” And if there's anything Google knows, it's what we're searching for... dozens of times a day.

It knows whether you have a mental illness and who your children are, maybe even where they go to school. If your child is a teen it probably knows far more about their lives than you do, unless you're tracking their online and social networking activities. Google aims to get so good at knowing who we are that it can tell us what we're searching for before we do. It won't just know you're a vegan; it'll know that right now you're two blocks away from a restaurant with a special on your favourite dish. It'll give you an answer before you've even asked the question, and increasingly, that answer will be right on the money.

Prominent blogger Robert Scoble notes in a recent talk that Google plans to build an identity system that will underlie the online social realm, creating a database of information on individual users.

Scoble argues that while notification streams alert users to things they need to know right now, it doesn't help them see any context in their life. “It doesn't drive an action, and context and action is what Google is after.“

As Google gets set to become the biggest advertising company in the world, so comes the shift from market research to person research. It goes back to Google's roots, says Scoble. How did it make its search engine monetisable? It studied our intent, and these days there are far more ways to serve that intent, he points out. Every like, tweet, post, tag, share and comment communicates something about our identity - and Google is finding numerous ways to sell that identity back to us.

End of the line

What is perhaps the most worrying is the lack of control we have over the process. Yes, there are privacy settings, but keeping track of all the updates on various sites is exhausting. They're also so couched in legal jargon that it's nigh impossible to figure out what you're agreeing to.

There's the option of forgoing social networks altogether, but that's like refusing to use e-mail when the rest of the world has moved on. Even if you kept online activity to the absolute minimum, there would still be a trail of searches and personal information, including data about you shared by other people.

So how do you prevent your identity from becoming a commodity? The thought of some gormless advertising exec on the other side of the world knowing my health issues, my best friends, what I eat and where I live, who I speak to and where I worship, what my pets look like and what's playing in my car, is just a little too much for me.

I don't like the fact that they can put together a scrapbook of my life without my permission, and flog it to whichever company is on the mailing list. I don't want my personal details being turned into the digital version of a billboard or tag line. And I definitely do not want Google or any other company to start telling me who I am.

I don't want any of it. But I have no idea how to stop it.

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