Centre for Internet & Society
Why your Facebook Stalker is Not the Real Problem

Systems keep track of all your digital transactions and will monitor what you consume, who you talk to and determine whether you are a good ethical subject: Reuters

We live in networked conditions. This is a statement that can now be taken at face-value, and immediately explains our highly connected, inter-meshed environments finds Nishant Shah in this article published in FirstPost on March 20, 2012.

Especially within the digital world, the World Wide Web has become synonymous with social networking systems, where increasingly all our access, communication and interaction is located within a series of interconnected networks.

From the imagination of the web as a complex network, we have evolved to looking at the web as facilitating networks where different relationships, transactions and connections can be mapped and managed. This is why we often have romantic imaginations of networks as free, open, collaborative, shared spaces of interaction and expression.

However, we have reached a stage where this idea of a network as a liberatory space is under threat. Even as I write this, Internet Service Providers are now planning to set up sophisticated, automated systems that will do a deep-spy on your data transfer to see if you are sharing files (sometimes also called piracy) using the Internet.

These systems will now keep track of all your digital transactions and will monitor what you consume, who you talk to and determine whether you are a good ethical subject who is only using the Internet in ways that the powers to be want you to.

For me, this particular networked condition of being constantly monitored and watched is scary. And it surprises me that this invasive process is less in public attention than Google’s recently changed privacy policies or the TOS-in-progress nature of privacy on Facebook.

This is because the ubiquitous presences of networks in our lives have made them transparent to us – we do not think of the networks themselves as entities but as spaces where interactions with other objects is possible. Hence, if I ask you, right now, to name the top 5 entities that you interact with the most on Facebook, I am sure you will be able to name them. More probably than not, these top 5 entities with people that you have formed strong Facebook Friendships with.

In fact there are platforms designed to let you know who you are talking with most on your networks. Network influence measurement indices by services like Klout are able to tell you not only who you talk to but also what are your key areas of influence. This is a way by which the network becomes invisible to us. It hides the fact that the thing that talks to you the most on Facebook is Facebook itself.

The marketing of Facebook might tell you that you are talking to other human beings, but reality is that the network is more than the sum total of all human beings on the system. Just look at the amount of information Facebook produces on your behalf and to you. Notifications for adding friends, for liking people, for people writing to you, for people commenting on your walls and posts, form more than 50% of the information traffic on Facebook or social networking systems.

This information is produces and shared by scripts, coded bots, algorithmic applications, and non-human entities that not only support and sustain the network but are also significant members of the networks.

This is the actual networked condition – where the processes and entities that make the networks possible, produce an illusion of seamless communication and interaction, while performing and extraordinary amount of information and for you.

This blindness to our own ‘networkedness’ has crucial ramifications for our online activities because it makes us oblivious to questions of privacy, control, safety and trust. We have privacy settings to protect us from human entities on Facebook. There is very little concern about the non-human entities who store, distribute and use the data that we produce. If we don’t even know what these watchers are, how do we protect ourselves from being watched? What happens when between you and your ‘friend’, is a series of silent interceptors who are recording and using your data without your knowledge?

Being in a network is like being in a glass-house. We cannot see the walls and hence, we presume that we need our privacy from the other inhabitants of the same house. However, in that, we forget that the walls are watching, and that there are invisible watchers beyond the walls, who are in control.

It is time to make our networks visible again. It is time to realise that what we really need to be afraid of, on social networking systems, is the social network itself, and not the mythical stranger who wants to stalk us or that unwanted friend you want to exclude from your information sharing.

Privacy and safety are not merely compromised at the interface, where information might leak and travel into zones outside of your knowledge and control. The real questions of being safe are actually in the protocols and designs of the network itself.

We need to start looking at larger invasive policies exercises by the different invisible actors like the ISP, ICT ministries, corporate policies, design choices and architecture of interception that sustain the networks we so gladly embrace.

Nishant Shah is Director-Research at the Bangalore based Centre for Internet and Society and recently edited a 4 volume book on youth, technology and change, titled ‘Digital AlterNatives with a Cause?’

Read this in FirstPost

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