As a baby boomer, I didn’t grow up with Facebook and other social networking sites. While I do use them — mainly to keep up with younger members of my family — I’m keenly aware of their potential to invade privacy.

Consider the fact that Facebook has amassed what may be the world’s largest photo database, consisting of more than 500 billion pictures. Then combine that figure with mobile technology like MORIS, the “Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System.” MORIS is a facial recognition program used by police. An officer simply snaps a photo of your face and runs the image through software that hunts for a match in a criminal records database.

MORIS can scan your face from up to five feet away, potentially without you being aware of it. Since you have no “expectation of privacy” in a public location, the law doesn’t consider this a “search,” and you need not consent to this intrusion.

It’s easy to see how this technology could be abused. Let’s say you’re walking down the street one day while an anti-government protest takes place. A cop armed with MORIS or a similar program matches your image to your Facebook profile.

Even if you’re not arrested right away, the fact that you appeared near a public demonstration against the government is filed away for future use. Big Brother is watching indeed!

It’s even possible that software like MORIS can secretly search Facebook’s photo archives. Facebook might not even know about it, given the “back doors” intelligence agencies like the NSA have built into it, as documented by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Yet, even if no back doors exist — or have been closed off — the government has its ways of getting the information it’s looking for. The proof is in a helpful document Facebook itself publishes, the Global Government Requests Report.

During the first six months of 2016, for instance, US law enforcement agencies made 59,229 data requests covering 86,735 accounts. More than 80% of the time, Facebook released at least some information. Nearly 60% of these requests prohibited Facebook from notifying the account holder of the investigation.

Your photos are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the privacy invasion that Facebook and other social networks facilitate.

  • Facebook tracks and archives every post and private message on its network. The potential for this information to come back to haunt you is almost unlimited. There are numerous examples of individuals turned down for employment due to sexually suggestive, politically controversial, or simply “inappropriate” posts. Some employers even demand access to social networking accounts as a prerequisite to employment.
  • Facebook also knows a great deal about you based on your “Likes,” the links you click, and the websites you visit that send information back to it. All this information is archived and available for marketing purposes — or for investigation.
  • While you can delete information on Facebook or even remove your account entirely, it’s not clear if the data is really gone. Some messages and photos may remain on its servers for “technical reasons.” As well, keep in mind that the government may apply for a “data retention” order to force Facebook and similar companies to preserve data that you might have thought you deleted.
  • Facebook’s computers continuously analyze the network of friends you create, along with the messages you send them. This analysis is designed to suggest content you might like, people you might know, or stuff you might buy. We know that the NSA closely monitors the network of friends of suspected terrorists on social media. And not just friends, but friends of those friends, etc. The more friends you have, the more likely that something you post, or someone connected to one of your friends, or a friend of one of your friends, might be deemed suspicious, triggering an investigation.
  • Attacks and malware aimed at social networks occur almost daily. Remember, the more information you post about yourself, the easier it is for an attacker to impersonate you and steal your identity — or pretend to be a “friend” and try to convince you to reveal information you’d prefer to keep confidential. If investigators don’t want to go through the process of asking Facebook for information about you, they can simply create a false profile and then invite you to become a friend. A prospective employer or private investigator can do the same thing to learn more about you.

It’s no wonder that when the satirical website The Onion published a spoof purporting to come from the CIA, praising Facebook, it rang true:

After years of secretly monitoring the public, we were astounded so many people would willingly publicize where they lived, their religious and political views, an alphabetized list of all their friends, personal email addresses, phone numbers, hundreds of photos of themselves, and even status updates about what they were doing moment to moment. It is truly a dream come true for the CIA.

The bottom line is that if you can live without Facebook or other social media networking sites, by all means don’t use them. If you do decide to use them, keep the information you post to a minimum. For instance, the only photo I have posted on Facebook is more than a decade old. I log on once weekly to answer messages from my family. I don’t accept “friends” whom I don’t already know personally. If you use Facebook or other social media sites, I suggest you take similar precautions.

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