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Michael Hiltzik: Facebook and privacy

June 5, 2010 |  7:17 pm

The sense many people have that they've lost control of their personal information dates back to long before the advent of Facebook and its serial invasions of its users' privacy.

As my Sunday column reports, the first technological assault on our right to be left alone occurred when information we allowed to be public but expected to remain confined within a small geographical circle got released to the world -- phone numbers being the best example. This data fell into the category of the "practically obscure," to paraphrase an important Supreme Court case on the subject.

The real change came when commercial enterprises became empowered to exploit our personal lives for their own profit, without our permission. The quintessential such businesses are credit reporting firms and data miners, which have no incentive to protect the integrity of our information because we're not their customers or clients.

A great example of the class: Choicepoint, which allowed its files to be serially breached in 2005 without bothering to inform most of the breachees, because by law it didn't have to. (Choicepoint has since been sold to Reed Elsevier.)

The governing ethos of Facebook seems to be that its users will put up with any invasion of their privacy as long as they can make contact with a handful of people they've lost touch with and interact online with a few scores of other "friends" they've never heard of. Is this true? I suspect we'll find out sooner rather than later; one more privacy fiasco, and users will start abandoning the site or becoming so stingy about the information they post that it becomes almost useless.

On the other hand, maybe Facebook's founders and executives will be proved right in their cynicism.

The column begins below.

Long before Facebook got blamed for turning the concept of online privacy into a sick joke, I could tell that the Internet was going to make the control of one's personal information a challenge.

That moment arrived in the late 1990s, when I realized that my listed phone number, previously accessible only to those who knew enough about me to know where I lived and therefore which local phone book to check or which 411 operator to call, had become available to anyone capable of typing my name — and that's all — into an online database.

Well, it was a listed number, after all. No great loss there. But things have headed straight downhill since then.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik

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