Tuesday, January 12, 2010

off my facebook

I won’t be gagged, or tagged and numbered
Won’t have my genes and eyeballs plundered
At my own expense
For a defence
That won’t work
Against a threat
That couldn’t get
Much smaller.
They won’t get my photograph, my details, my age
(So long as they don’t log onto my Facebook page)
- Danny Chivers, Risk Assessment

Even before I read Jim Bliss' alarming background information about Facebook - stuff which anybody who ever knows anybody who uses Facebook should read - I was wary. It amazed me activists would sign up so readily to what is the greatest gift the security services have ever received. People who used to be meticulous about PGPing everything they sent now blithely trumpet the stuff they once encrypted.

For all their talk of nutters trying to blow up planes, MI5 and the semi-secret branches of the police watch a far greater number of unthreatening subversives. In the 1980s it was suburban CND groups and trade union officials, these days it's Climate Campers and the like.

Some people have said that the wealth of information involved in social networking sites makes it hard for the forces of darkness to sift through; there's so much noise it obscures the signal. But once they have a target named from whatever source, Facebook lets them be followed like nothing before. No amount of phone-taps or blokes waiting outside your house with notebooks could yield the volume and fine detail that can be readily culled from five minutes on Facebook with your password cracked.

Who knows who, how familiar are they with each other, the precise detail of their political persuasion (what sort of weblinks do they flag up, what links of other people's do they click 'like this' on), photos, times, dates, dates of birth, family background, employment details, the works. It's a cornucopia of data that the Stasi would have creamed their kecks at. And I'm starting to feel left out.

About five, maybe seven years ago it became a severe social impediment not to have a mobile phone. Social etiquette changed, plans were things that could change at the last minute, even made at the last minute, and everyone was up to speed. Except, that is, for the weird types who didn't have a phone, sat there like a lemon at the original agreed meeting point, feeling like the Amish kid who doesn't know what the other kids are raving about when they talk of TV shows.

Large numbers of the kind of switched-on political thinkers who'd have done blogs now just post their stuff on Facebook. Significant discussions that I'd have really liked to be part of have taken place between friends and their friends, all of them assuming that anyone with anything decent to say has heard about it. Last weekend's hilarious mass snowball fight between several hundred people on Leeds' Hyde Park was a Facebook thing. When the Christmas number one can be righteous and a Facebook meme, it's time for us non-users to feel locked out.

Some try to avoid exposure on Facebook by not using their real name and having some witty obscure avatar. It's certainly a tactic that protects bloggers from the ultimate nightmare. It's effective on Facebook too, until your friends use your real name, tag you in photos they upload or spot, and then you respond with all manner of identifying information.

I'm well aware that activist bloggers volunteer a lot about themselves to the security services, and I'm surely no exception. But there's still a sense of awareness, of control, of restriction. I choose which information goes up. I'm not giving every last detail of my life, and more to the point I'm not encouraging every one of my friends to do it either. Were that so, it'd feel very different and pretty wrong. But this is now to be weighed up against the exclusion that non-Facebooking enforces. It's starting to feel like refusing to use a phone or write anything down in case it's intercepted.

I'm already peeking over the shoulders of Facebook users and chipping in to their musings. I can feel myself slipping...


Paul said...

As far as your online presence goes, I reckon I could find out who you are, where you live (near a park wasn't it?), and how old you are, what your birthday is. I certainly know what your political views and affiliations are. I know what kind of activities you're likely to be engaged in.

If you were to present yourself down your local nick, with nothing in your pockets and your lips tighly sealed, how long would it take them to work out who you were? Presumably, since you've been an activist for many years, you'll have been arrested at some point, and had your fingerprints taken. So I don't suppose you'd have to wait for too long.

merrick said...

All the points you make are right, Paul, but they miss the point.

As I said in the penultimate paragraph, i choose what information goes up. I don't have friends posting lots of stuff about me, putting up pictures of places I've been with my image marked with my name, nor put a vast wealth of extremely precise details of the interaction among the network in the public domain.

It's also very one way - what I put up is about me, I'm not encouraging everyone I know to do it even to the extent done on this blog, yet Facebook encourages far more.

As Jim said, there's effectively very little difference between a mandatory database and one where everyone volunteers. So we should consider Facebook more or less the same way we'd consider such information being gathered by the government by decree.

Unknown said...

of course it's all watched over, but then so is every blog and email and text! I have no doubt every word is stored - I just watch what goes up there!
I've found facebook useful in posting news articles for comment, especially stuff re the BNP which has generated huge amount of comment, I have friends who live in America, Russia and Poland who can instantly provide perspective on events there
Oh - and you can see shots of people off their tits at parties and post videos of people falling on their arses in the icy weather!

See you on there soon!

merrick said...

of course it's all watched over, but then so is every blog and email and text!

Following emails takes a lot of sifting. Following blogs tells you about one person. Facebook gives you a ready access to all the stuff you'd have in the blogs and emails, but - crucially - a precise map of the network of people around any given subject, how they inter-relate and influence one another, and leads you on to those in the network who don't do blogs but are worthy of attention.

That's quite a lot extra, and the bit that concerns me.

Unknown said...

point taken - what are your thoughts on Twitter/Twatter? Seems to have a fair bit of power for good - ie the Stephen Gateley thing - but at the same time...
Mind you - the Giles Coren thing yesterday shows the power it has to let celebs hoist themselves by their own petard! Still - it's nice when a celeb tweets you back!!

Jim Bliss said...

I'm already peeking over the shoulders of Facebook users and chipping in to their musings. I can feel myself slipping...

Please don't slip, Merrick. It's only you and me left outside now. If you decide to join FOTC* then it'll just be me. I'll be "The Nutter" as opposed to "one of those nutters".

* Friends of the CIA

field said...

Completely agree - Facebook gives a much richer, more detailed context to a person's online presence than any other medium. And makes further visibility necessary (and not easy) to opt out of with a complex and difficult to negotiate system of privacy settings.

Facebook is doing a good job helping to erode the value of privacy to the individual. If you are private on Facebook, you have nothing and you can do nothing. Unlike, say, a messageboard, which allows/facilitates connections without forcing you to declare them, or putting you at the mercy of them.

All really I can hope for, unless I choose not to be part of the conversation, (and I am considering 'facebook suicide'), is that the conversation moves (we move it) elsewhere, onto a better platform. Which is...?!

merrick said...


I've no interest in Twitter at all. Tweets are simply too short to say anything well.


it's not just that it's fiddly to opt out of Facbook's public-access - it's that the info is all there whatever your privacy settings if you are the secret police asking Facebook about someone.

A new platform would surely have the same issues.


My holding out this long is evidence that I agree with your position, but i'm now finding that a lot of interesting and important information is coming my way from looking over the shoulders of Facebook users. It's safe to assume I'm missing out on a whole lot more as such peeking is something that only rarely occurs. As such, the cost:benefit ratio is tipping sharply.

Unknown said...

yes - Twitter is a bit of a waste - use it to follow celebs a bit but most of the stuff is guff - we get clients asking about twitter - one of them has a marketing guy who wants her to twitter - she's a miserable farmer so I'd imagine most of her tweets will be "It's raining, can't harvest the crops, everythings rubbish" so it'll kill her business!!

I've had some good discussions on Facebook - perhaps nothing the government would stalk me for - mostly about BNP stuff around the elections - and - it has to be said - lots of daft things too!! Maybe see you on -think theres a few people in my friends list you'd know.
Of course once you're on and add me I fully expect the government to send the men in black to grab me and body cavity search us all! Pass the KY...

merrick said...

Mate, the KY is a privilege you earn, you only get it after you start giving them useful information. Before that it's chilli powder and Denim aftershave.

Anonymous said...

Merrick, people already are posting about you on facebook but you just don't know what it is because you aren't there either.

Unknown said...

lovely!! I'll brace myself! Have a good weekend!

Jim Bliss said...

One thing I don't quite understand is people who use Facebook (a centralised database set up by self-described neo-conservative activists, part-controlled by a foreign intelligence agency and part by a conglomeration of international corporations who use the data you provide for purposes that should be considered objectionable by any decent person) and yet still complain about ID cards and a "the database state".

Yes, I know the two are quite different, but the basic philosophical objections that apply to the latter also apply to the former.

But maybe I'm just some crazy luddite who is no longer hip with the kids.

merrick said...

Anonyperson, heh, you're no doubt right, the scoundrels. Thing is, if people write stuff about me that's a different thing to me declaring a lot more info and supplying a lot of detail about my precise interaction with others.

And more to the point, this isn't about me, it's about the way activists and others the state likes to monitor are doing it en masse; it's that I don't really relish the thought of being part of that.

Jim, I think you'd find people would say that Facebook's voluntary, whereas ID cards are compulsory. to which the response is that the ID cards are planned to be voluntary (for now...), and as you've said there's no real difference between mandatory and voluntary if everyone volunteers.

None of this in any way alters your confirmed position as a crazy luddite.