The Privacy (You Don’t Realize) You’re Giving Up on Facebook

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© Marie Notcheva

Once upon a time, the Internet was a New Thing. In the mid-1990’s, the novelty of being able to connect with strangers in chatrooms or play chess with friends a continent away was met with awe – and caution. A generation of parents now implemented the “don’t talk to strangers” rule in a new way. Common wisdom, long before social media, meant never revealing your identity or location online. There was a mis-placed sense of fear that by tracking your computer’s IP address, crazy stalkers could show up at your house with axes in the middle of the night.

A generation later, the proliferation of Smartphone Apps that use GPS tracking has made virtually everyone’s location “trackable”, all of the time. We know that Google stores all of our information – which we give them willingly – and we pretty much don’t care. As long as our anti-virus software is up to date, we figure we are “secure”.

But as a professor at a programming conference once said, “Security is why we lock our doors. Privacy is why we draw the curtains.”

We throw back the curtains of our lives every time we post a picture or update our status. Privacy is something we have given up willingly when using social media. But far more is being taken than most users realize. And Facebook Messenger, which adults now use for most written communication, is the single biggest offender when it comes to invading your privacy. Increasingly, teens and students are moving away from Facebook and using Apps such as Kik and SnapChat (which leave no data behind on servers) to communicate, but those of us in the over-30 demographic use Messenger more than e-mail, SMS texts, or any other App for casual communication.

The sheer convenience of Messenger makes this logical – texting is unreliable, as people’s phone numbers tend to change. The sender knows instantly when a Facebook message is read; something impossible via traditional text or e-mail. For Smartphone users, the notification “pops up” instantly – making the message hard to miss. And everyone is on Facebook – it is the easiest way to connect. I have sent articles to editors; responded to neighbors’ concerns; even been contacted by my children’s teachers through Facebook Messenger.

How Messenger Steals Your Privacy (and there’s nothing you can do about it)

When Facebook rolled out the new App in 2013, there was concern about security which, while stated in their user contract, few people took the time to read. Users were prompted to download the App to continue being able to send messages, but once installed, Facebook was granted permission to do a multitude of things like call numbers, send SMS messages, record audio, take pictures and read personal profile information stored on your phone. Ever noticed the tiny Google map that shows up on some messages, sent from a phone? This allows me to see exactly where on the street (say, in Sofia or Tirana) a friend is when she messages me. She, in turn, has a map of the Boston hospital from where I messaged her. Pretty cool, right?

Now imagine that’s your 14-year-old daughter, texting with a stranger who just “Friend requested” her.

While you can turn off location services under your phone’s settings, that feature never should have been on Facebook to begin with. Having your precise location recorded and displayed by default is just plain creepy…but at least it can be de-activated. Another more subtle (but insidious) privacy feature cannot be turned off: the “Last Active” timestamp.

The Messenger timestamp displays exactly how many minutes it has been since you last logged in (no matter how briefly). It’s both in the chat sidebar and at the top of your Facebook “Conversations”. Gone are the days when turning off chat made you invisible (green light meant you were available; yellow that you were idle; and if you turned it off, no one knew if you were active or not). Now, whenever you open Facebook, you are still displayed as “Active” even when chat is off. Other messaging Apps (such as Viber, Skype and Whats App) also have a “Last Online” timestamp, but give you the option to deactivate it. Facebook does not.

Many casual or infrequent users of Facebook don’t realize that once you have exchanged a message with someone, he or she can pull that up at any time and always see the last time you were logged in. Why would someone care? Most of us, in fact, don’t. (I check my messages and scroll briefly through the Newsfeed many times per day – especially when I have downtime at work. I don’t often have time to engage in conversations, but I couldn’t care less if someone sees me check in.)

Why do people need this information about each other?

Messenger – a Faster Way to Wrongly Conclude that People are Lying to You

As absurd as it sounds, this timestamp has led to fights, paranoia, even breakups – and it’s not even accurate. By 2013, a glitch in how the servers were gathering data was well known to Facebook. Randomly, users (especially from cellphones) will appear as online, even when they’re not – “phantom users”, in a sense. While the exact reason this occurs is unknown, some guesses from a mechanical engineer are:

  1. Facebook Chat in the browser has no uniform way of determining the idle state of the host machine or browser.
  2. The Facebook Messenger app can’t signal that it’s idle either, because most mobile OSes kill apps or place them on standby at will to conserve power.
  3. Mobile data connections are relatively tenuous compared to conventional LAN connections. This means that a mobile client may fade in and out of connectedness despite the user being active.
  4. Facebook Chat’s infrastructure doesn’t distinguish between API calls from Facebook clients and 3rd party apps using a Facebook account. This means that you could appear to be online solely because a web service that uses your Facebook credentials pinged Facebook’s servers. Combined with point #1, it means Facebook might assume a user is online solely because their browser is on a Facebook page, despite them not being at the computer.
  5. The sheer number of users is too much for Facebook to track accurately in real-time.

Another reason for “phantom activity” may be that many users have other accounts linked to Facebook (such as Twitter, Instagram, etc.) Theoretically, whenever there is activity there it could cause someone to appear “Active”, even if he has not opened Facebook in days. Apps running in the background affect the activity recorded, as well.

I have many student-friends in Europe (six time zones ahead of me), and it’s not unusual for them to login to Facebook and chat in the middle of the night. However, some of their phones seem plagued by this “timestamp glitch” – resulting in exchanges such as this (paraphrase):

ME: “Dude! What are you doing online? It’s 2:00 in the morning over there. You should go to sleep.”
HIM: “Dude, ya think?!? I WAS sleeping.”
ME: “But Dude, your Facebook says you’re active. I thought you were chatting.”
HIM: “Dude, I wasn’t chatting. I was sleeping. My phone does that, I don’t know why.”
ME: “Oh, sorry Dude!! My bad. Good night.”

Not a big deal, right? It led to some slight embarrassment on my part; some sleep-deprivation on his part; and a new rule: don’t message European friends after dinner (regardless of what Facebook claims about their activity).

Elsewhere, however, this Messenger feature – no matter how unreliable – has caused almost unbelievable drama. A sample of complaints:

“Fell asleep at 11pm. Girlfriend thinks I am up to no good as it says that I have been active between 11.30 – 12. Caused mayhem.”

“My boyfriend and I broke up because of this 😦

Sometimes it’s good because you think “oh thank God, he was online 14 min. ago, so he wasn’t hit by a truck!”, but other times it’s “hey WTH is he doing on FB mobile at midnight when he told me he went to bed at 10pm?”

My question is two-fold: 1) Why are people stalking each other in this way; and 2) Why doesn’t Facebook remove this timestamp feature – or at least make it optional? It’s the fact that we have no control over this privacy feature that is the issue.

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Social media may be a faster, more accessible way to communicate, but the psychological effects it is having on relationships makes this a steep price to pay.  A decade ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that trust would be shattered over privacy violations on a “socializing” platform. This is not porn, “cyber-sexing” or any other form of infidelity – this is a massive social network wrongly recording pings off a server (that it has no right to be recording).

It may be too late to uninstall Messenger (you will still be able to send messages through the browser, but not the App), but be aware of what it records about you. Assume the timestamp is inaccurate; turn off your location services; and ask Facebook to remove both of these features.

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3 thoughts on “The Privacy (You Don’t Realize) You’re Giving Up on Facebook

  1. Elza S.

    The easiest (and most obvious) way to solve these issues all at once is to ditch Facebook Messenger and use an IM service that focuses on privacy (and offers end-to-end encryption) instead. Try Threema or Wickr, for example. (Not sure about the latter, but the former definitely doesn’t indicate one’s online status (and read receipts can be turned off, too).)

    Liked by 1 person

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