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[liberationtech] CNN writer on leaving Facebook

Paul Bernal (LAW) Paul.Bernal at
Wed Feb 27 03:02:19 PST 2013

I wanted to say a little more on the issues of profiling, facial recognition and so forth - and why I'm quite bothered by Facebook in both regards

>From my perspective, I think it's sometimes easy to (at least in our minds) divide people into two categories: those in 'dangerous' situations, and those in 'safe' situations. For those in dangerous situations, in these terms, it's obvious that Facebook would present risks - whether it's those operating under oppressive regimes or people vulnerable in various ways (e.g. anti-drugs cartel bloggers in Mexico and so on). For those in 'safe' situations, the suggestion is often that Facebook etc is 'safe'.

There are two problems with this view. Firstly, that even those who are 'safe' might lose out through profiling etc - if insurance companies make false inferences about health or risk-taking activities, for example, or if credit-rating agencies take a view and refuse credit. Those risks come both through errors in profiling and through 'too-accurate' profiling.

The second, perhaps more important problem, is that vast numbers of people aren't really in either category. For example, in the UK right now, we have a lot of unrest about government activities - e.g. the current policies of the government to effectively privatise our National Health Service. This kind of unrest is turning 'ordinary' and 'safe' people into a kind of activist: activist enough to go on protest marches, for example. Now I don't know about the rest of the world so much, but here in the UK the authorities quite often clamp down quite hard on protests - even 'mild' protests. In the 70s and 80s, when I was involved in the anti-nuclear and anti-Apartheid movements, for example, the police spied on us, infiltrated our groups and so on. We weren't wild radicals, we weren't 'dangerous' in any real way - the most we would do would be sit-in protests and so on. Now, in the current climate, that kind of thing is monitored and controlled via things like Facebook.

Indeed, after the London riots in 2010, Facebook - and in particular Facebook photos - were used to identify, catch, and prosecute rioters. Now one person's 'protestor' is another's 'rioter'… it's a very slippery slope.

The authorities in most places are beginning to grasp the possibilities here - which is why Raytheon RIOT and similar systems are very attractive to many of them. The stuff on Facebook will become a goldmine for those wishing to snuff out protest, to impose order and so forth.

Anyway, that's my tuppence on the subject for now. It's a big subject, and what I wanted to do with my post most of all was to help raise some awareness. If people understand the issues better and make more informed decisions, all the better!


Dr Paul Bernal
UEA Law School
University of East Anglia
Norwich Research Park
Norwich NR4 7TJ

email: paul.bernal at<mailto:paul.bernal at>
Twitter: @paulbernalUK

On 26 Feb 2013, at 21:36, Jon Lebkowsky <jon.lebkowsky at<mailto:jon.lebkowsky at>>

On Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 2:13 PM, Paul Bernal (LAW) <Paul.Bernal at<mailto:Paul.Bernal at>> wrote:
2. On real names, it's as much about fighting the bigger battle for the need to allow anonymity. If real names becomes the norm, we're in real trouble when the going gets tough...

I think there's room for platforms that do both, and maybe a great opportunity for someone to develop something like the Tor Project of social networks.

3. The monetization issue isn't just about what's happening now, but that there's an increasing drive to squeeze revenue from our data. Sponsored stories, the Instagram saga etc just give a clue where it's headed.

I get the point of voting with your feet, but I don't think a few people leaving FB will fix the age-old problem of greed. It's a wicked problem.

4. Profiling is an issue for more people than you might think - the Raytheon RIOT stuff hints at that. More on that tomorrow!

Looking forward to hearing more.

5. Again, think of the extended use of this - Facebook will be mined more and more by those with less benign uses.

Would love to hear more about that, but I think this comes back to digital literacy, thinking about what you share.

6. Yes, there ARE alternatives, but who's using them? Ask a class of my students, and they're ALL on Facebook...

Right, but a popular service is not necessarily a monopoly. I could get an argument that we have an oligopoly (the stacks).


Jon Lebkowsky (@jonl)
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