All My Little Words: Every Breath You Take

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On nights like this - nights when the minutes tick away as it (paradoxically) gets later and earlier - I can finally understand Facebook addicts.

You would know the ones I mean: the people who live their lives in the gaps between status-update one-liners and tell-all "Notes." You always know what's happening in their lives, regardless of whether you care (you probably don't) or whether you asked (you didn't). They are honest and soul-baring, which means they are awkward and overly-revealing. They are metaphorical nudists who abandoned our insular ideas of formality and boundaries. And we hate them. We all do.

But ... but ... the numbers are flying by on my alarm clock and thoughts are spinning in my head - and all of a sudden, I really want to tell someone how I feel. But who to call? The early birds have gone to sleep and the partiers have yet to stumble in. Anyway, it's not that I want to talk to anyone in particular. I especially don't want to have anything as involved as a conversation. I just want to post a memo.

To: Life. RE: Everything.

Message: It Sucks.

And that's when a Facebook update starts to seem really, really appealing. With an over-heating laptop to keep you warm at night, you need never be alone again.

Now, I'm hardly a Luddite. I grew up in Silicon Valley where tech startups are more common than garage bands and everyone is always obsessed with "the next big thing." Seriously, if you think New York has an obsession with trends, try being in San Francisco during the Macworld Expo.

However, I'll admit, I find Twitter dubious, Tumblr questionable (did I really spend an hour looking at pictures of hungover owls?) and Foursquare a sign of the coming apocalypse.

A recent prank, which I learned about through Tumblr, concerned a Google Mobile app for a "location-based air service" that would allow you to track where your friends had recently breathed. The frightening thing is how few people realized it was a deliberate prank rather than the delusions of a visionary.

Privacy seems, in some way, such an outdated concept. This is, in part, because the way we use the Internet has undergone a rapid transformation in recent years. When I was growing up (all those many years ago), the Internet was a fairly anonymous place. Before the Facebook Revolution, most "social networking" sites took the form of blogs, diaries or forums. The key being that they were mostly formed on the basis of mutual interest rather than of mutual acquaintance.

Yet somewhere in the transition from LiveJournal to Xanga to Myspace to Facebook that anonymity was lost. Where early usernames were probably some combination of your favorite animal plus "cute adjective" plus "string of random numbers," post-Myspace you are no longer "cocoaducks" ... you're just you.

The Internet stopped being where we lived alternate lives and became, quite simply, a part of RL (real life). True, the Facebook transition decreased the number of Myspace creepers posing as small children, but it also means that what happens on the Internet can now follow us home. To the home that everyone can see on Google Maps.

In December, The Wall Street Journal did an expose on popular mobile apps and their privacy breaches. Before the article went to press, they found that both free and paid versions of the Angry Birds app for the iPhone sent the phone's unique device ID and location to Electronic Arts Inc. (the app's marketer). Of the 101 apps that The Wall Street Journal examined, 56 sent the phone's ID to other companies, 47 passed on the location and five transmitted personal details such as gender and age.

The creepiest indication of this was a little ad that popped up on a random website over spring break. "Hi Meghna," it said. "How's the weather in Palo Alto?" I may have screamed.

It works like this. According to a paper from Arnold Roosendaal of Tilburg University, when you visit a page that has a Facebook "Like" button, information gets sent back to Facebook itself. If you happen to be logged in to Facebook at the time, it's possible to link your web browsing with your Facebook identity.

In a 1999 episode of "The West Wing," Rob Lowe's character declares privacy as the issue of the 21st century. In an epic address to the camera, Lowe proclaims, "The next two decades are going to be privacy. I'm talking about the Internet. I'm talking about cell phones. I'm talking about health records and who's gay and who's not. And moreover, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?"

There is something fundamentally repugnant to me about someone making money by selling data about me. Especially, when I have no idea how that information is used.

So please, tonight after you shut all the windows in your apartment, draw the curtains, lock your doors and bolt them shut, take a moment and check your Facebook privacy settings. You never know what might follow you home.

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Contact Meghna at [email protected]



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