Column: Facebook and ‘Big Brother’

By Eric Naing

“Big Brother” is more than just a literary allusion and a CBS reality show; it’s also the lurking boogeyman that all wild-eyed liberals fear could be watching them at this very moment. Between controlling world events and spying on UFO enthusiasts, is it possible that “Big Brother” is also logging on to Facebook?

Facebook of course, is the wildly popular social networking Web site available at more than 25,000 high schools and 2,000 universities. The people behind Facebook claim that on average they attract around 80 percent of a university’s undergraduate population. So if you go to college, chances are you are all too familiar with it.

Now think back to when you first joined Facebook. Like all programs you install and Web sites you register for, you probably passed over the privacy policy and blindly agreed to their terms. I would recommend taking a look back at it.

Aside from the usual “we may share your information with third parties” clause, there also is the slightly disconcerting “Facebook also collects information about you from other sources, such as newspapers and instant messaging services.” Even scarier is the part that states “we may share account or other information when we believe it is necessary to comply with law or to protect our interests or property. This may include sharing information with other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies.”

The “comply with the law” part makes sense as authorities have used personal profiles and photos found on Facebook to apprehend students at universities such as Penn State and Ohio State. But why would any “government agencies” want to know that I watch “Arrested Development” or think White Snake rocks? The answer may surprise you.

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    Facebook was started by students at Harvard in 2004 with $500,000 in funding from one Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal, right-wing darling, board member of the conservative Vanguard PAC.

    Facebook also received $13 million in venture capital from Accel Partners. Accel’s manager James Breyer is on the board of the National Venture Capital Association. Also on the NVCA’s board is Gilman Louis, who heads the CIA’s In-Q-Tel program. Established in 1999, In-Q-Tel specializes in “data warehousing and mining” and “the aggregation and management of data from large numbers … of interest to the CIA.”

    While I realize that this “conspiracy theory” is venturing into the “my brother’s friend’s sister’s roommate” territory, it can’t be denied that Facebook’s CIA links are somewhat disturbing.

    But it’s not just Facebook that threatens your privacy. America Online recently stated that users of their instant messaging service AIM “waive any right to privacy,” meaning AOL reserves the right to republish any AIM conversation at any time. Furthermore, users of the Web site MySpace.com have reported that certain comments and profiles have been censored. (Not-so) coincidentally, MySpace was recently purchased by Rupert Murdoch, owner of a media empire that includes Fox News.

    Your privacy is worth fighting for, especially when the president claims the right to illegally wiretap U.S. citizens and demands that Google give up search records. In the Internet age we cannot afford to assume that our privacy is being respected. As Ben Franklin famously said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    Am I telling you to quit using the Internet and hide under your bed wearing a tin-foil hat? No, but I hope that the next time you log onto Facebook or Myspace or have a conversation over AIM you’ll consider who could be watching. By using Web sites and programs such as Facebook, MySpace and AIM, you are willingly providing a public record of whatever you wish to share. If that doesn’t bother you, then go ahead and list your political views, sexual orientation, friends and interests.

    And remember, “Big Brother,” be he the president, the creepy dude in the top left corner of Facebook.com or that yellow AOL guy, is watching.

    Eric Naing is a senior in LAS. His column appears on Tuesdays. He can be reached at [email protected].