The Two Faces of Facebook

The “Friend” and the Big Brother

Who doesn’t know that Facebook is about to go public, with a projected market capitalization of one hundred billion dollars?  That’s the new face of Facebook, an economic blockbuster.  But where is all that money going to come from?  And why?

Facebook makes most of us think of “friends” and “likes,” birthdays and parties, vacations and photos.  But the vast stores of information the social networking site has accumulated turns out to be a bonanza for investors.  Personal information has become a commodity, the value of which we are just beginning to appreciate.

By now we are all familiar with “targeted marketing,” the way advertisers “know” what we’ve bought or inquired about and then customize ads for us.  Usually we don’t object when Amazon “suggests” books we might like, and sometimes we even find it useful.  Some even feel flattered that their tastes are catered to.

But as Lori Andrews pointed out in The New York Times, the use of this personal information doesn’t stop there.  Those who have done a Google search for “stress” or started using an online medical diary may find that the information is used against them.  “Whether you can obtain a job, credit or insurance can be based on your digital doppelgänger — and you may never know why you’ve been turned down.”

She adds:  “Material mined online has been used against people battling for child custody or defending themselves in criminal cases….  The Internal Revenue Service searches Facebook and MySpace for evidence of tax evaders’ income and whereabouts, and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has been known to scrutinize photos and posts to confirm family relationships or weed out sham marriages. Employers sometimes decide whether to hire people based on their online profiles, with one study indicating that 70 percent of recruiters and human resource professionals in the United States have rejected candidates based on data found online.”  (See, “Facebook Is Using You.”)

We don’t usually stop to think about this.  Andrews noted:  “A 2008 Consumer Reports poll of 2,000 people found that 93 percent thought Internet companies should always ask for permission before using personal information.”  That’s extraordinarily naïve, and probably reflects the belief that we do not need laws to protect the exploitation of our personal data.

In Europe people think otherwise, no doubt because big brother has been more of a looming presence in their lives.  Authoritarian regimes have taught them to appreciate the dangers of continual surveillance.  They think of it as “spying.” (See, “Should Personal Data Be Personal?”)

But we are still at the beginning of this new age of information.  It’s great to be able to post to so many friends and google when we want to find something.  But we also find ourselves at the other end of those searches, being scrutinized for the information that gives others access to our minds, and we never know about it.

That’s what’s worth a hundred billion dollars — for starters.