One of my best friends has long refused to join Facebook. I found his hardline stance rather peculiar in the past because, well, everyone's on there, aren't they, and it's such a quick and easy way of seeing what old friends are up to - not to mention people you've barely met, or haven't seen for decades - without actually having to contact them personally. Not to mention checking out other people's holiday snaps and advertising your own 'fabulous' existence - or airbrushed internet approximation thereof - and organising your social life. Opting out of facebook, it seemed to me, was like voluntarily opting out of your own social circle. It's the modern equivalent of living without a mobile phone - the preserve of the elderly, the eccentric, and the socially crippled.
Well it turns out he may have had a point. The reason we should think twice before joining Facebook, let alone posting our most intimate details there, is precisely because it makes it so easy for anyone to see them. "Not so!" you might protest. "It's for friends only".
I first got concerned about a lack of privacy when a variety of freak strangers - 'networkers' I guess you' call them - started asking me to be their friend. Now this is in a completely different league from pesky peeps from the past who don't get that you weren't in contact for a reason and won't take no for an answer. These were people I had never met and never heard about. So how had they found me?
I figured that we must share some friends in common or I was some kind of deranged amnesiac. In some cases this was true. Yet in others I could see no real connection between me and the names I thought I ought to know. Until it twigged- it's due to the networks you join where, as I was to learn, everyone can see who else is on it. That's also the reason adverts for EU Studies Masters and Brussels Job Fairs are perpetually popping up on my screen.
Not so bad, you might think. That's what a virtual community is all about. But it doesn't stop there.
More and more bosses are monitoring employees pages and taking action against behaviour outside the workplace that doesn't correspond to their professional standards. Witness the case of Stacy Snyder who was sacked from her teaching placement and denied her degree because a photo captioned 'drunken pirate' appeared on her My Space page. The university claimed it promoted underage and irresponsible drinking amongst her students. And now her career is in ruins before it even began.
Nor is such psycho surveillance consigned to the risk-averse side of the Atlantic. Here in Europe everyone, from potential employers to university tutors, is checking up on our personal preferences before we even step through the door for an interview. One too many photos of drunken nights out, one too many revelations on your wall, and you can kiss goodbye to your future prospects.
What's worse, though, is that the corporations and civil servants who track down information to use against us are not abusing the system at all. Quite the contrary. They are using it exactly as its founders intended. There's a reason Facebook is now worth $15 billion and that's because it's the most detailed and up-to-date database that exists on earth.
Who wouldn't want to buy into a programme which provides particularised profiles of 60 million human beings from Afghanistan to America - a figure set to rise to 200 million by this time next year? It's an advertisers wet-dream for heaven's sake. It's the government's holy grail.
So what do Facebook's founders do? Thanks to Tom Hodgkinson from the Guardian for this analysis. "The creators of the site need do very little bar fiddle with the programme. In the main, they simply sit back and watch as millions of Facebook addicts voluntarily upload their ID details, photographs and lists of their favourite consumer objects. Once in receipt of this vast database of human beings, Facebook then simply has to sell the information back to advertisers, or, as Zuckerberg puts it in a recent blog post, "to try to help people share information with their friends about things they do on the web". And indeed, this is precisely what's happening. On November 6 last year, Facebook announced that 12 global brands had climbed on board. They included Coca-Cola, Blockbuster, Verizon, Sony Pictures and Condé Nast. All trained in marketing bullshit of the highest order".
So there we are. The people most interested in the unique, individual, 'I am' of liberal discourse is not old school friends jealous of your desperately attractive boyfriend or wonderful career, not loved ones who live far away and rarely see your life except through shared photographs and messages - no, it's precisely the people we spend most of our time protecting our information from. Our government and our boss.
So what makes Facebookplc so profitable and beloved of the enemies of our privacy? Well...
1 - It will advertise at you: "When you use Facebook, you may set up your personal profile, form relationships, send messages, perform searches and queries, form groups, set up events, add applications, and transmit information through various channels. We collect this information so that we can provide you the service and offer personalised features."
2 - You can't delete anything: "When you update information, we usually keep a backup copy of the prior version for a reasonable period of time to enable reversion to the prior version of that information."
3 - Anyone can glance at your intimate confessions: "we cannot and do not guarantee that user content you post on the site will not be viewed by unauthorised persons. We are not responsible for circumvention of any privacy settings or security measures contained on the site. You understand and acknowledge that, even after removal, copies of user content may remain viewable in cached and archived pages or if other users have copied or stored your user content."
4 - Our marketing profile of you will be unbeatable: "Facebook may also collect information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services, and other users of the Facebook service through the operation of the service (eg, photo tags) in order to provide you with more useful information and a more personalised experience."
5 - Opting out doesn't mean opting out: "Facebook reserves the right to send you notices about your account even if you opt out of all voluntary email notifications."
Finally, and most worryingly,
6 - The CIA may look at the stuff when they feel like it: "By using Facebook, you are consenting to have your personal data transferred to and processed in the United States ... We may be required to disclose user information pursuant to lawful requests, such as subpoenas or court orders, or in compliance with applicable laws. We do not reveal information until we have a good faith belief that an information request by law enforcement or private litigants meets applicable legal standards. Additionally, we may share account or other information when we believe it is necessary to comply with law, to protect our interests or property, to prevent fraud or other illegal activity perpetrated through the Facebook service or using the Facebook name, or to prevent imminent bodily harm. This may include sharing information with other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies."
So delete it all now! But wait, there's no point leaving Facebook once you're in the system. Because even if you delete it the information's stored in an archive 'just in case'. And to think I even signed the 'NO2ID" petition.