Yesterday, when I saw on my Facebook calendar that it was my friend's birthday, I decided to do something weird and dated: It's been several years since I've seen this friend. Aside from an occasional Facebook hello, we haven't had much contact. So I called her.
With the phone.
I used to make fun of my younger friends for avoiding the phone. But now I find myself doing the same because, well, it just takes more time. But this was Mel, and her 86th birthday, which I think that deserves a call. Anyway, I digress. While we were talking and catching up, she remarked on my animals, on my partner, and on my writing—all of which she was aware of through Facebook.
I've been on Facebook since the time I used it strictly professionally, to cover the online social network when it was first emerging. Now, I pretty much put everything out there. I used to really worry about my privacy; then it just seemed like too much trouble. If I was going to participate in this Internet economy, I had to spend. And spending meant giving information away.
Mostly it seemed harmless. As a reporter for many years, I discovered that privacy is something you don't need—until you do. Like if you commit a crime. Or if someone close to you commits a crime. Or a tragedy befalls you. Or any number of reasons that would make you the center of news. I'm fully aware of this. And before I was a reporter, I worked for a private investigator (actually, I still do some investigating on the side). I've also written a lot about privacy—from the early days of the Internet on down.
So I can't exactly call myself a privacy naïf. And yet...I let it happen. I Instagram pictures that reveal my location. I post Facebook updates that will let people know where I eat and what kind of dogs I have.
I’ve basically given up on privacy, putting it all there. Apparently, I’m like everyone else, says the CEO of a new app called Permissions that shows all the various apps you've given permission to view your private information.
“In the last couple of years something happened, cloud services such as Facebook, dropbox, Google apps and others came around and really gave people the comfort of storing and sharing things online, but people let hundreds of thousands if not millions of applications that connect to their social services connect, hereby giving up that privacy they used to be so good at protecting,” says Olivier Amar, CEO & Co-Founder of MyPermissions.
And he’s right. Using the Permissions app, I could see that I’d given permission to a startling 68 Facebook apps, as well as dozens of others across various sites. I recognized all the names. Sure—I revoked permission for some of them. I also just shrugged. Because I’m like everyone else. Privacy? It’s just so much work.
Or so I thought. During my conversation with Mel, she casually mentioned, when I told her that I was living in San Francisco, that “Oh, I saw you live on xxx street, close to where I grew up.” We started reminiscing, and I told her I walked by her old house all the time. Then I did a double take. Wait a second. She knows where I live? Of course, I didn’t mind her knowing, but how did she know?
She said she'd seen it somewhere on Facebook. We haven't spoken since I'd moved; that was the only place she could've seen it. I was already thinking about writing this column when she said this. I had been planning on saying that I’m actually I'm okay with people knowing my private business. I pretty much am; I've already written about the whole idea of coming out online as a journalist and how challenging (and liberating) that has been, so I won't repeat myself here.
I will talk about my partner, about my jobs, about my trips, about my pets. But the one thing I never like to talk about? My actual address. Color me paranoid, but that seems to be a little beyond the pale. I realize that anyone can get my address fairly easily. Really, anyone can get anyone's address. But somehow I put it out there voluntarily.
The worst thing is, I can't find where I did. The more Facebook upgrades itself, the harder it is to control your information. Sometimes, when I’m paying attention, it drives me (and a lot of people) crazy. I guess the question is, what will I do about it?
Janet Kornblum is a journalist and media trainer. She has been thinking about privacy a long time and is more confused than ever. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or just find her on Facebook.
Photograph by rodtuk