“It was granted to take peace from the earth... men would slay one another...”
— Revelation 6:3-4
In this series, I will be discussing the five tech giants, and looking at the power they hold in society, and how if left unchecked, they have the potential to bring significant harm. Each tech giant will be compared to one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as follows:
In an attempt to understand the role Facebook can truly play in our lives, I went around and asked Professor Sam Edwards, Dr. Shannon O’Sullivan, and Pat Carey, a noteworthy member of the student body, how they approach privacy concerns and Facebook in an ever increasingly digital age. (Interviews were edited for content and conciseness).
Professor Sam Edwards
ZA: What is privacy?
SE: It’s different things to different people, I don’t think there is one uniform definition that everyone would agree on. The definition is not going to be the same in the US as it would be somewhere else. So, I don’t think there is a single agreed upon definition.
ZA: What does it mean to you?
SE: Personally or what the law says about it?
SE: It’s a pretty complicated question. Privacy as written in the constitution (you can look at my article, I went through the definitions of what it means) I think that there are a lot of nuances. The word privacy does not appear anywhere in the constitution. It was assumed that it was an inherent right and there was no reason to carve out particular protections for it. Over time the court had to find the concept of privacy within other parts of the constitution. I think that the framers originally assumed we had privacy, and we didn't need to affirmatively protect it.
ZA: Why is having privacy an important right?
SA: I think it is an essential element in order to have any of the other rights that we are guaranteed and are central to a democracy, to allow people to be free, to think what they want, and not be forced to disclose things that they do not want to, and to be free from surveillance. So, I think that allowing people to meet, organize, peacefully assemble, and protest all require privacy, or else we could have government overreach and would infringe upon those other rights.
ZA: Does technology represent a risk to privacy?
SE: Absolutely. When the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written, tech was very different than what it is today. There was no way to intrude on your privacy, when you were in your home there was very little that the government or anyone else could do to intrude upon your privacy. We didn't have aircrafts, we didn't have satellites, infrared sensors, none of that existed. So, you could be very private in many spaces. As we started developing technology, we started losing many areas that previously would have been considered private.
ZA: Does the Internet represent a risk to privacy?
SE: Yes. Information is like water; it wants to be free. Anything that relies on keeping things hidden from others is unlikely in the long run to be very successful. Look at Equifax and so many of other breaches that have happened. The connectedness makes it a lot easier to give up privacy either intentionally or unintentionally.
ZA: Do you think it's right that consumers can unknowingly give up their privacy to companies like facebook?
SE: Consumer's consent to the terms when then sign up with a service like Facebook. In that sense, they knowingly give up control of the material they share. The problem is that consumers do not normally fully read or understand those agreements. Moreover, businesses such as Facebook are essentially black boxes and they don't disclose their algorithms and information about how they can use the material you share. So, it’s hard for us to know what kind of information we are giving up when we login to facebook. When we hit “ACCEPT” they haven't told us what they are capable of actually doing with that data.
Dr. Shannon O’Sullivan
ZA: Does social media (FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter) represent a threat to privacy?
SO: In short, yes. I would say as far as what we have seen with Google and Facebook selling our data to third parties for the purpose of marketing, this represents an obvious concern. It’s troubling that folks can participate in social media without full knowledge of how and to what extent all of their personal data is being tracked and aggregated. As privacy settings have evolved and become more sophisticated, there’s still a lag of legality making sure folks are protected.
SO: Does the amount of data that Facebook gathers scare you?
ZA: Yeah, especially for younger folks who maybe don't fully understand the real-world consequences of what they put online yet. I have friends who had social media accounts from back in high school that came back to haunt them on their professional job searches. There’s also the wider, ethical implications of Facebook’s data collection practices and its effects on what we see and hear in election cycles. We know from the last presidential election that Facebook impacted the public discourse. Its algorithms are not designed to ensure that we see credible, evidence-based, diverse, and antagonistic perspectives in our news feeds.
ZA: Are there any steps that people should be taking to protect themselves online when it comes to Facebook?
SO: Absolutely. With your social media accounts, you should be changing your passwords frequently. Make sure you are aware of your privacy settings, and who can actually see what. You should make a habit of double checking your privacy settings every few weeks. If you are tagged in public posts, untag yourself, unless you are part of a marketing strategy for your own content or for an organization you are involved in. It’s one thing if you want public visibility for a specific purpose of professional self-promotion, but if there is no reason for you to be tagged in a public post, you should be untagging yourself. Be aware that when you are tagged in a large group photo, if whoever controls the privacy settings makes that a public photo, you should ask them to untag you. With anything you put online, you should be asking yourself the question: Would you want someone to be able to search and find this content? Another recommendation would be that instead of using Facebook Messenger, you should use WhatsApp for all of your personal communications because it offers end-to-end encryption.
ZA: Does Facebook scare you?
PC: In my own personal life no, but for other people I am scared for them because a lot of kids get a facebook at such a young age. When you contract a human for practically their entire life on the internet, I feel that our government might see that as an opportunity to abuse their power. I am not a conspiracy theorist thinking that the government it out to get us, but they do have the potential to abuse that power and that scares me. I believe that these companies should not be controlled or influenced by the government. I am not especially scared of Facebook the company, my concerns lie in them sharing data with the government.
ZA: Would you let your kids have a facebook?
Ultimately the company of Facebook may not be overtly evil, but ultimately it’s hard to deny that it leads conflict among us mortals.