Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Questionable Support of a Good Cause?

This past Monday I wrote a post about the Chase Community Giving organization and the efforts of the Old First Concerts series to be one of their beneficiaries. Basically, Chase decided that it would make its donations on the basis of votes cast through Facebook. Old First Concerts responded by circulating a "get out the vote" message through electronic mail. This led to my casting a vote and concluding that this was a legitimate process. On the basis of that conclusion, I circulated information about the process not only on this site but also through an article. I may not be bullish about "beauty contests;" but I figured that, if those are the rules that Chase has set, those of us who know and love Old First Concerts should respond accordingly.

One member of that "know and love" community is my colleague Chloe Veltman. Therefore, I was not surprised that she should have received the same electronic mail that I did; but I was extremely disquieted to learn that her experience with the system was far more negative. Here is what she wrote on her blog post:

The money on offer is significant and I love the work that Old First Concerts does. So I dutifully followed the link and tried to vote. But Facebook wouldn't allow me to cast my vote without making all my personal information available to Chase, which I wasn't keen on allowing as I don't want the financial institution to start badgering me with offers etc. There seemed to be no way around this demand, so I decided not to vote after all.

Those who know my feelings about social software would probably conclude (rightly) that, if I had had this experience, I would have done exactly the same, deciding that withholding personal information is more important than voting. However, I wonder whether or not Veltman was correct in accusing Chase of going after that information. On the basis of a post I wrote last December, I am more inclined to believe that Facebook is the malefactor. In that post, entitled "Valuing Private Life," I wrote about my experiences with receiving "invitation to friend" messages from Facebook members, all of which I have ignored:

When I received my second invitation, it came with a reminder that I never replied to my first one. (This, of course, was mistaken. I had replied. I just chose to do it through a channel other than Facebook!) I was then presented with a three-by-three grid of photographs and names of "other people you may know," which was surprisingly accurate. This raised the question of just how Facebook knew whom I "may know." This, of course, brings us (again) to the terrain of data mining, because there are any number of ways through which Web pages can connect me with these people. The problem is that not all of those pages are ones that most people would regard as public (which is to say that most people do not give very much thought to whether or not they are public). Specifically, from my own point of view, my connections to two of the names on that grid were established only through my Yahoo! Mail account. Thus, when I had recently written about the potential problems with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security looking in on every human being appearing on any social network anywhere (and we may assume that they are particularly active in the wake of Friday's incident), I had forgotten that the search space extends beyond those social networks.

In this context I have hypothesized that Facebook did not request my personal information because they already had whatever they wanted (including the ability to know who I was when I entered the voting site)! This is, to say the least, scary. It also means that any information that Facebook harvested about me prior to the recent uproar over their invasive tactics is still "in the system," which may well mean that any promises to resolve those problems will never be anything more than hollow promises.

If Chase wants to make its donations based on a "beauty contest," that is their decision. However, if they wish to conduct their contest through a Web site with a reputation for invasion of privacy and no sign of that reputation changing, that is the business of anyone thinking of voting. For those already part of the Facebook social network, this will probably not be an issue (although they may wish to think twice about whether those new privacy settings really have any effect). The rest of us, however, will have to give this matter further thought, since we do not even have access to the window dressing of a privacy settings site on Facebook.

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