Whose Data is That Anyway?

By Published on .

I tag you!
I tag you!
A cascade of Facebook strangeness left me flooded with messages from my teenage step-sister and her friends. I had been tagged in a photo of a cute kitten with a caption like "my favorite friends"; and next thing I know, I receive a barrage of discussions about what small animal is cuter, and which boy likes which girl, etc. . .You get the picture.

It seemed that quite a large group of kids were disregarding the terms of service and signing on to chat, play and do all the silly things kids do. They even seemed to have parents' permissions, but these parents didn't seem to know the service is not for kids. Perhaps the parents had caved in to their children's pressure to be connected—as if the Facebook connection would mean being hip and cool in this group.

Another point: Facebook has recently changed the rules that apply to its filtering of wall content so that it selects your top 5% of friends and displays their posts on your wall filtering content from your other friends. So if I have a look at my wall now I feel alienated: needless to say the connection from that photo tagging has also affected my wall, deciding I also must like discussing boys and cute kittens. I never really look at my wall so it's not much of a loss, but it is a bit of a shame to lose access to some of my old friends' activity I actually enjoyed on occasion.

The whole situation has annoyed me and left me feeling worried about the impact of these tools on a younger generation. I doubt they know all the twisted hacks, how easy it is to fake emails, to assume someone's identity, to modify a picture, to be Rickrolled or plenty worse. But the more worrisome aspect of the scenario arose later when I started imagining my teenage years captured in some sort of social tool. I might still be battling today with pics of me break-dancing, smoking or drinking too much and clinging on a lamp post. Despite my privacy settings, the data would be out there to persist and make sure I could not really start again from a clean sheet.


If you dig around a bit online you find that it's not so easy to reclaim what you would think of as your data. Identity suicides such as www.seppukoo.com are something Facebook is taking seriously. It seems to take quite a bit of time to fully delete a busy account, so some people have developed a Facebook app that does all the deleting for you. However, not long after the app was launched and successfully deleted 50k people or so, it was blocked from Facebook with legal followup expected. Similarly the alternative suicidemachine.org ran into trouble right away but only after getting its point across with a nice colorful promo-video. So it seems unlikely you will be able to quickly erase what you have participated in; what if you had been using the service since you were 12?

From Suicide Machine
From Suicide Machine

About a month or so ago, I heard Jaron Lanier presenting his You Are Not a Gadget book; he was a bit disconnected and free rolling but his point about how we are adapting to bad design struck home. We should be enabled for a more free and creative medium, drop downs with fixed lists force us to conform without capturing what we are about. He also underlined the problem I can see with my sister—once her data is out there she cannot really get it back or modify who she is without inordinate effort. Teenagers deserve the right to be a bit of a screw-up for that time while they learn to become adults; it should not be recorded and held against them.

Coincidentally this year, for the first time, I also had some quality time with Facebook employees and was extremely impressed. They were very intelligent and had a clear focus on defending the value of the service: keeping people that want to be connected happy and enabled. We had come up with some campaign ideas that they pointed out had a potentially spam quality to them: I think they felt these ideas worked against what Facebook was all about. The discussion was lively and interesting, I learned a lot and the only really odd moment arose while discussing this wall-filtering based on the "best 5% of friends" rule. When we thought about this we couldn't ignore that somehow the system was interfering with our own ability to define our friends.

I think Facebook and its users, if they care about longevity, need to define a sort of draft ethical agreement that can allow the user some choices. A bit like the Creative Commons licenses I would like to be able to decide when what I write is my own property and in which cases I am passing it away, and don't care if it's rebroadcast forever. In the end I really should be allowed to easily delete everything in my account and not have to worry about it haunting me again some future date.

It might sound unusual, but I see a direct parallel situation with the moral issues that genetics is bringing to bioethics. These questions stand out much more because they come with a baggage of glow-in-the-dark bunnies, ear-growing mice and pest-repelling corn, but in the end, if you boil things down to the fundamentals what we are discussing is information ownership and rights to privacy. For example: what if I run a genetic test on my DNA and find I have a horrible disease, do I share this information with my relatives? Even if it's incurable? Shouldn't they have the choice to live without knowing this? What if I share my DNA and lose my job? Or share my DNA and lose my friends?

In the bio-ethical debates you find professional philosophers hired to figure out the best approach to solve the particular problems that arise. The problems are tricky; often there isn't a perfectly right answer—I say this after having spent hours discussing with one and coming out of the discussion completely confused. What is pretty clear to me is that you can't really take the impact of some technologies so lightly. In the information sphere, info-ethics, I think Facebook could really lead the way to new systems that work for us, to protect our friendships and our youth online. If anything, their work trying to solve the issues would put the brand in an important place to defend healthy long-term friendship.

Yates Buckley is Technical Partner at unit9

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