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Facebook and NSA privacy violations: Privacy becomes a selling point

Rick Falkvinge is the founder of the first Pirate Party and campaigns for sensible information policy.

Published time: September 19, 2013 19:41
The letters "NSA" for National Security Agency and a mask of U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden are taped on a fence of the "Dagger Complex", which is used by U.S. Army intelligence services, during a demonstration against the NSA and in support of Snowden in Griesheim, 20km (12.4 miles) south of Frankfurt, July 20, 2013.(Reuters / Kai Pfaffenbach)

When people are being watched, they start restraining themselves. NSA privacy violations are provoking people to flee Facebook, but where? In fact, millions of users are deserting Facebook.

This may not sound like much in the light of the site’s one billion or so users, but it is significant in terms of a trend change.

In particular, about half the people leaving Facebook cite privacy concerns for doing so. This gives us a bit of promise for the future. Overall, Edward Snowden's revelations have been a tipping point where people have gone from resignation to anger. And perhaps worse - those of us who have been warning of the situation, and who have been discounted as complete tinfoil-hat village idiots, turned out to have been severely underestimating the extent of what has been going on.

When Facebook was building a new data center for Europe, it was little surprise that a country was chosen where Facebook's usage would be wire-tapped by the NSA's allies. In this case, by the Swedish FRA. Facebook chose the subarctic Swedish city of Luleå, with significant hydro power generation, for its European data center.

On the surface, the rationale looks flawless: The Swedish government offered very generous subsidies for Facebook to establish itself there, power generation was nearby and stable, and cooling for the data center came very naturally in the subarctic climate, especially in winter. It's impossible to criticize these grounds. But at the same time, it makes perfect sense to pick a location where practically all Facebook usage is also wiretapped. All traffic that leaves and enters Sweden is controlled by the Swedish FRA, an ally of the NSA. This is serious because it starts to change people's behavior.

When people are being watched, they behave differently. When we know that somebody is listening in on a conversation, we restrain ourselves. When we don't know whether somebody is listening in, we also restrain ourselves. Indeed, prisoners in the most horrible prisons display this very behavior - they believe they're being watched, or can be observed, all the time.

AFP Photo / Ed Jones

For all intents and purposes, every one of us is wiretapped. With the help of the NSA and companies like Facebook, we're turning society into a dystopic prison society.

Today, I choose what subjects I talk about based on how safe and secure I perceive the communications environment to be.  On a phone line I only discuss the most superficial subjects. And the same goes for when I’m at home, and outside on a summer day, only wearing swimwear, whispering in windy conditions, with my mobile phone battery taken out and the phone far away, fairly secure. Using a number of encryption tools that I won’t mention here, I feel fairly safe.

If I had told my teenager self that I would be behaving like this, that teenager would probably believe I had moved to East Germany in the 1980s.

I am not alone in thinking this way. In Germany, about half the people say they have thought of refraining from or have already refrained from making phone calls that could be used against them in the future, stored in so-called "data retention". Not what people said, just that the phone call took place at all. They avoid calling drug addiction helplines, psychologists, even marriage counsel services: anything that could be used against them. This is a sign of how people's behavior is changing.

It's far too premature to talk of privacy woes being Facebook's downfall. But nevertheless this has been a constant complaint directed at the service. Those of us who have worked in the IT industry for a couple of decades know that there's only one thing that stays constant: the products and services that seem invincible aren't; they get replaced by something else.

MySpace had 300 million users, Facebook has a billion. There are seven billion people on the planet. What service are the next six billion - or even the next two billion - going to use?

It's as arrogant to talk of Facebook's demise, as it is to deny the prediction of history that Facebook will, at some point, be replaced by something else. CP/M, WordStar, Fortran, and Lotus 1-2-3 seemed absolutely invincible in their day, too. And what about Borland, Corel, and ZModem? 

So we'll all see what comes next. It may well be that the selling point of the next major social system is privacy, since this is precisely Facebook's weak spot. Seeing how people are starting to demand that kind of privacy, revolting against the NSA and Facebook alike, is a good sign in that direction. If so, all society would benefit from it, perhaps starting to open those prison doors a little.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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