The Private Eye

Posted by Nishant Shah at May 24, 2012 06:25 AM |
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The world’s largest digital social networking system, oh ok, Facebook, to just name names, was ­recently in a lot of buzz.

Nishant Shah's article was published in the Indian Express on May 14, 2012

The world’s largest digital social networking system, oh ok, Facebook, to just name names, was ­recently in a lot of buzz. For once, it was not about the laments of how we are downgrading the meaning of friendship, eroding social relationships, and visions of an apocalyptic future where people will lose the knack of face-time to interface intimacies. Instead, the buzz was about Facebook’s collaboration with the American non-profit coalition Donate Life America to encourage more people to sign themselves up as organ donors. The feature that allows the American users to sign up as organ donors, promising their organs, in the event of their death, to others who might live through them, has been an instant hit. More than a lakh people have updated their status to reflect their volunteering as organ donors, and thousands others have signed up for the noteworthy initiative.

There is no doubt that harnessing the powers of social networks for such causes is laudable, and indeed, follows the trends that we have been witnessing the last few years, where people have mobilised their networks for a range of things — from overthrowing governments to dancing in flash mobs. It is interesting that initiatives which were already working with large-scale networks are now collaborating within the social media space to tap into the immense potential of social networking. It is also noteworthy that Facebook Connect, which is a slowly growing system by which users authenticate themselves to different portals and can use their Facebook credentials instead of creating new profiles with more passwords to remember, was used effectively to facilitate registering for a new system. It is a testimony to Facebook’s growing omnipresence, that initiatives like these can use those credentials in their systems.

There is a wide range of interests that punctuate this phenomenon and there is a rich discourse that reports, analyses and maps it. However, I want to take this opportunity to make a distinction between data types that is often lost in the presumption that all information on a social network is the same kind of information. With the enabling of this feature, Facebook has started mining a new set of personal data that is at once fiercely private and vulnerable. Till now, Facebook and other such social networking systems were already harvesting a wide range of data — personal data such as name, gender, birth-date, pictures, etc.; social data such as relationships, interactions, communities, groups, likes, etc.; usage data like preferences, navigation, search, frequency of interaction et al. While all this data has been about the personal, it is also data that we share and display in our everyday life. Who we are, what we look like, the politics that we subscribe to, the communities we are a part of, languages we speak, products we consume and people we hang out with is physical data that is available to anybody who cares to watch us.

While there are serious repercussions on what happens when such data falls into malicious hands, there is still objectivity to this data. This is data which we can understand as personal — as referring to the person, but not necessarily private. Private data is actually the information that we have singular access to. And this distinction between the personal and the private is good to understand, because with the Organ Donor badge, Facebook has entered a new realm of data mining, which is truly private. Till now, privacy arguments around Facebook have not been as fuelled as they might otherwise be, because there is an innate understanding that there is a certain performative aspect to our personal data, because it facilitates different kinds of negotiations, transactions and engagements. However, with private data — health and medical history, gender and sexual orientations, desires and fantasies, moral and ethical choices — we are entering murky waters. This happens because while violation of personal data can be easily rectified by resorting to the law, the private is more in the grey zone, subject to interpretations and often unquantifiable in its intensity.

The concerns that will emerge are the same kinds that we have seen in other large projects that deal with private data like the Aadhar project that uses biometric identification data to identify citizens in India. While Facebook might not be collecting biometric data, it is important to recognise that this new kind of data disclosure, which puts our private information in the public domain, only mandates better security and privacy control within these social networks. As we move towards a data-driven future, we need to be more aware of the different kinds of data sets that we are making public and educate ourselves about the risks of this disclosure, without being carried away by the sway of meme-like behaviour and viral trends online. The next time you decide to reveal some new kinds of data about yourself, pause for a moment and reflect on whether it is personal or private, and whether it is absolutely necessary to facilitate your interaction within that information system and the ­rewards and dangers it comes with.

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