This is why I don’t use Facebook.

Earlier today I came across a new campaign in response to a FTC complaint against Facebook is calling on college students and parents to “Occupy Privacy“. Much of this seems to come from rival networks like umenow.com and gocncn.com, which makes it more than a little suspect, but the issues being brought up are beyond disturbing. Tracking people’s use of social networks like Facebook and Twitter has gone from being an industry trend to an industry in itself. Digging deeper, it wasn’t hard to find more evidence of how widespread this is becoming.

For students, the biggest battleground has been sports, with corporate services like Udiligence and VarsityMonitor being contracted to monitor the Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds of college athletes. A prime concern seems to be evidence of sins like “getting drunk at parties”, which in my day (not so long ago) was a totally expected part of college or university life. As this kind of surveillance spreads to admissions themselves, as well as the financial aid that often comes along with athletic involvement at American schools, it will mean the exclusion of huge numbers of students from opportunities to study and train.

In the workplace, this is already a reality. Software even exits to automate the process. One recent survey found 44% of employers monitor worker’s social networks both at work and elsewhere. “Innovative Employee Solutions”, a HR firm describes the social media as “the new background check” and notes that over a third of employers have declined to hire somebody because of the results of these searches, and over half have fired somebody. What reasons have employers given? “Discovery of provocative photos, references to drinking and drug use, poor online communication skills, and online bad-mouthing of previous employers.” When, exactly, did getting drunk on a Friday night constitute an appropriate reason for dismissal?

Being declined admission to college programs or fired from a job can have horrific implications for one’s life. Homes, families, medical care and pensions depend on them. These systems threaten to institutionalize personal profiling in ways never before thought possible. Since this process is private, we’ll never really know what standards are being applied to us. Worse yet, because it’s being contracted out, it has the potential to span many or all schools and employers. Simply put, this is the beginnings of a very colossal blacklist.

If getting drunk or sounding off about a bad boss can get you fired or end a career (even before it starts), then obviously there are few limits to the use of these technologies. It may be illegal to use them directly to block someone based on their religion or sexual preference, for instance, but that can be very hard to prove. Prejudice takes many forms and official records aren’t usually kept about the details. Employees have always been subject to this to some degree (and some more than others…) but the level of intrusion here is something new. This can affect you because a friend took pictures at a party or “tagged” you in a picture, you don’t even have to get near a computer. In this new age, Big Brother is watching from every camera, phone and laptop.

This is why I don’t use my real name online.

It’s fairly obvious that the large-scale political use of this kind of technology is right around the corner. Between the way social media and Blackberry Messenger data (good riddance, RIM) were used to corral London rioters and this move toward deep, professional intrusion into the lives of workers and students, it’s hard to imagine that this won’t be put to use on “radicals” sooner or later. Given how heavily dependent many recent protest actions have been on social media, it would be dead simple to track. What’s preventing schools and employers from taking a critical view of those involved in the ongoing student strikes in Quebec? What about “Occupy” protesters? Occupy Oakland? Or supporters of Mark Emery?

We would never tolerate this kind of behaviour from a government agency, but because companies like Facebook and VarsityMonitor are private, they avoid this kind of scrutiny. We’ll never really know what standards are being applied to us to what depths this data-mining is reaching. The ever-expanding stock of personal information online is becoming easier to search and compile every day, without any need for secret government supercomputers. Private intelligence agencies like Stratfor were only the first step here. If information is now a commodity, then there’s a market for our secrets.

There is no gravity online. What goes up may not ever, ever come down. Always treat every one and zero you send – email, text message, phone call or facebook update as an announcement to the world, because that’s what it is. What you do doesn’t have to be “illegal” to ruin your life. This is the dark side of the new social interconnectedness we see, and it only underscores the need to use some caution when dealing with them. Like all technologies, social networks are a double-edged sword and they cut both ways.

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