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September: Save a Friend from Facebook -- do it!

By Evelyn Castillo-Bach
Sometimes you just need to be patient. Wait for the experts to conduct the studies and make the declarations that affirm what we already know. Let me be the first to say it, very loud: It's time for Facebook to change it's tag line that reads:

"Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life."

There are other more suitable descriptions. As it stands now, one could be forgiven for thinking that Facebook is guilty of false advertising. So in the spirit of cooperation, here are three tag lines for Facebook that fit. If they use them for sure they won't get sued for intentionally misleading people:

Choice 1: "Facebook is a massive directory that automatically shows your name and picture to everyone in the world."

Choice 2: "Facebook is a service that tags you, tracks where you've been, and deploys Face Recognition Technology. It helps others to guess your social security number."

Choice 3: "Facebook is a service where you can use thousands of apps that will also track you and tell people you've never met a lot about you."

Check out these facts.

In a recent article by Julia Angwin, writing for the Wall Street Journal, she points to the stunning findings by Prof. Alessandro Acquisti of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Face Recognition Technology can be used to predict the first five digits of someone's social security number. "The professor said the study also shows how Facebook, with its 750 million users, whose names and profile photos are automatically public, is becoming a de facto identity-verification service."

Not to be outdone, this past July, just one month after Facebook unleashed it's latest surveillance toy, Google, writes Angwin, acquired Pittsburgh Pattern Recognition, or PittPatt, the facial-recognition technology that was used in the Carnegie Mellon study. Google has not deployed this technology on the newcomers to Google+. But if Angwin's reporting is correct, the company is not saying it will not use it. Instead it is declaring it won't deploy without "strong privacy settings."

I don't get it.

Why does a social network need Face Recognition Technology? Yes, it's a powerful tool for law enforcement and the military. It's perfect for monitoring border crossings in search of criminal gangs, terrorists, drug dealers, predators and sex traffickers. But why in a social network? Under what pretext does a company morph from a social network into a circle of surveillance? This I don't get. And since Facebook and Google have millions of users throughout the world, many in countries with brutal dictatorships, why do they embrace a technology that is intended to identify people that are not easily recognized because you don't know them?

Surely, we all know what our friends look like. We don't go into any social situation strapped with surveillance equipment to assist us in knowing if the person across the room is a former classmate. So what is the purpose?

People embrace Facebook and Google+ because it's fun to connect with other people. That's human. But why do these giant companies think nothing of tagging us, processing our images to match us to massive databases and then justify their actions with claims that it's to provide us with better service?

There is a huge difference between Facebook and Google.

The search engine giant always intended to be the mother ship of data collection, and they do it very well. No one should be surprised that they will take it to the next level. The other sold itself as a social environment where people could be people. It then morphed into a data collection company that now aspires to have the largest database of tracked people -- who naively think they are just hanging out with friends.

Companies make strategic decisions all the time.

June and July are perfect months to unleash invasive technology on users distracted by summer plans and weather. By September, when people return to their normal routines and are more ready to focus, most journalists and bloggers would have moved on to other subjects. Companies know that the attention span of journalists and editors is short. There is always something new to write about. I vote that we declare September the Save a friend from Facebook month. Let this be the first year that we commit to really look at this giant and ask ourselves, why are we there?

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Posted by Ellen

on Mon, August 8, 2011