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Eric: Frienditto and E-mail: the fallacy of privacy on the Internet

"Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead."

--Benjamin Franklin
Poor Richard's Almanac

Over on Livejournal, I've seen a cascade of sometimes panicked, sometimes pissed posts regarding a website called Frienditto. This site, for the record, takes your LJ username and password, logs in as you, and slurps down stuff you can see into their own database. If you're a registered user, you can do this in a private archive for your own use. If not, it goes into the public archive -- even if the original Livejournal post was locked to Friends. In other words, if you have a Friend on your Friends List who uses this service, the posts you've locked to your friends that he has access to show up on a public website, as well as a public Livejournal Community.

This, needless to say, has pissed people off. "If you use this service," I've seen from many friends, "you need to tell me right now so I can unfriend you." Others are railing at the monumental stupidity of giving a third party your Livejournal Password.

I understand these reactions. I empathize with these reactions. I think Frienditto is crass at best, and evil at worst.

Guys? Welcome to the Internet.

Livejournal gives us a wonderful sense of false security. "This is private," we say. "I can lock this so that just my friends can see it." Or "I can define a custom friends group, so that only a small group of my friends can see it." And so on down the line.

But every one of these things requires that the people on your friends list actually respect your Friends lock -- that none of them will ever be false or petty or stupid and copy and paste your post and repost it elsewhere -- or use this alleged 'service' because they want to keep a record someplace, without realizing they've put it out for the world to see.

That doesn't even count things like the fact that you don't own the computers or databases these programs are running on, even if you paid. Yes, you have the copyright to your words, but if the FBI shows up at Six Apart with a court order saying "show us all the private posts from user 'dipshit1,' either Six Apart is going to give them access or people will go to jail, the equipment will be seized, and the FBI will scrutinize all of it.

The Internet is not a private medium. The Internet is not designed to be a private medium. Take e-mail. E-mail, if anything, seems private, right? Wrong. It goes out cleartext. Every so often, I have to check my school's spam firewall for clogged legitimate messages. When I'm going through the logs, there's every single e-mail we've received, be they spam or legitimate. I can read any of them I want at any time. It's not, by the way, a sense of privacy or propriety or honor that keeps me from reading them. It's the sheer unmitigated tedium involved in reading other peoples' daily correspondence. The times I've had to do searches of student e-mail accounts (In Loco Parentis means never having to say you're sorry), it's has inevitably been the most soul-crushingly dull process you can imagine.

And it's perfectly legal. At times, it's a requirement of my job and of the school's legal responsibilities for its own equipment. And every ISP in the world reserves the right to read e-mail or anything else on their servers, as part of their efforts to maintain their equipment and prevent scriptkiddies from screwing with things.

So that tearful love letter you sent the married woman? Might well be read by a bored teenaged intern sitting in the ISP's server room at eleven o'clock at night. It's not private. Don't fool yourself that it is.

Do I sent personal things in e-mail? Yes I do. Do I post personal things to my Livejournal? Yes I do. Do I use friendslocks and custom Friends groups? Yes I do.

But I never forget that the stuff I write on Livejournal... or here, for that matter... couldn't show up in places I never anticipated. It's the risk I take, and the faith I have in my friends. And it is an informed risk.

If you're writing something so mind-numbingly personal you can't bear the thought of it getting out into the general world, write it with a pen and paper in a lockable diary, and then keep that diary in your desk drawer. If you're going to be doing this stuff on the internet, remember that you're speaking to an audience... and remember that your control over your content ends when you click "SUBMIT."

Posted by Eric Burns-White at March 4, 2005 8:51 PM

Comments

Comment from: alpaca2500 posted at March 5, 2005 12:13 AM

Guys? Welcome to the Internet.

i believe that is all that needs to be said...

Comment from: Robotech_Master posted at March 5, 2005 12:23 AM

As Paris Hilton found out, it's probably not a good idea to keep fellow celebrities' phone numbers and nude lesbian photos of yourself on an Internet-connected device (which stores all its content as webpages on a hackable server), either.

Comment from: Zutto posted at March 5, 2005 8:38 AM

Let's not forget that if you leave your locked diary open on the patio outside, some fellow running the spy sats can take a glance just as easily as a neighbor.

I don't mean that sarcastically -- this issue of privacy is pretty big these days, Internet or no. Don't forget, too, that the US Federal Gov't tracks which books you buy or check outta the library. ;) It is our very boringness that protects us.

Comment from: Phalanx posted at March 5, 2005 10:56 AM

I think I remember very well the many incidences when something I said, even if harmless, was misquoted by someone else and put in a different context, sounded awful.

It's the internet. and I realise that by giving a voice I am setting myself to be quoted and misquoted.

Does that mean I'd want to stop speaking out? Probably not. I'll just watch what I say more.

Comment from: chaos cricket posted at March 5, 2005 2:50 PM

I just content myself knowing I'm not important enough to quote or misquote. That sorta has its advantages, I guess.

Comment from: Chris Anthony posted at March 5, 2005 6:06 PM

I am somewhat loath to say this, because I know somebody is going to jump on me for it, misinterpret it, or both. But:

In my case, this has nothing to do with privacy and everything to do with trust.

When I lock a post to certain people - I very rarely use a universal friends-lock, and even then the same logic applies - I am saying "I trust you with this information". I am not saying "this is absolutely private", because I'm not stupid; if someone doesn't subpoena the LJ servers, or hack them, or intercept my packets (or those of one of the trusted users), I keep my LJ password stored in the clients I use, so all anybody needs to do to get access to past posts is to get to one of my computers.

But when I lock a post, the implicit statement is "I trust the people reading this".

When someone publicly posts something that I've put up privately, my reaction is not "my privacy has been violated" but "my trust has been violated". Frienditto makes this worse by refusing to archive the name of the user who archived a post - if someone uses Frienditto to archive one of my locked posts, not only has someone violated my trust, but I don't know who it is.

Comment from: Wednesday posted at March 5, 2005 9:07 PM

Control doesn't end on the push of submit.

Control ends when you pen each letter. Each. Successive. Letter.

Control ends the second you commit the thoughts outside. Locks crack. Papers fall. Bindings break.

Bindings break and papers fall.

Everything is trust.

Comment from: Chris Anthony posted at March 5, 2005 10:33 PM

Weds, I have no idea whether you're agreeing or disagreeing with me. :)

Comment from: MasonK posted at March 6, 2005 12:33 AM

I'm not going to jump on you, Chris, because I agree 100%. Maybe more.

As others have said, I'm not important enough for someone to hack my account and see what I've said in private posts. I just like to know who I'm talking to and, should I say something 'privately' in a public building, well, anyone else could 'overhear.' And LJ is a very public building, and Frienditto is listening.

So, you know, I'd rather my friends not post what I've locked or anything, but if they do, I'd rather not know it. It is, as you said, a trust thing.

Of course, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure I've never friendslocked anything.

I'm rambling. I'll stop now.

Comment from: EsotericWombat posted at March 6, 2005 2:21 AM

I agree as well. You just can't expect that anything you say online isn't going to wind up being heard by say, any given person with net access. It's something you accept. If you post something sensitive, be prepared to explain yourself to the weilder's of torches and pitchforks. It's something I learned when a joke I made on AIM found its way to a bulletin board at NYU and got a signifigant amount of people pissed at me.

Comment from: Wednesday posted at March 6, 2005 9:52 AM

Chris: Agreeing, largely, except with added sort of "geez, what do you mean, your mom didn't read your diary?" to it.

Comment from: MasonK posted at March 6, 2005 6:35 PM

Too true, Weds, too true. Pretty much any time I press "post" on my LJ or any fics I write, I pause and think to myself, "Is there anything in this that I don't want my mother to read?"

It's not that she reads my LJ or my fic. It's that she *could*.

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