The Social Network: Everyone’s new Big Brother?

By Angelina Jeyarajah

Big Brother is watching you
(George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four).

Paralleling the futuristic fear that Orwell highlighted in his novel, the growth of the Internet showcases just how intently a desire for the control of information exists within states, corporations and groups to serve its purpose. By definition the Internet refers to an international network of computers that are joined through a common software protocol. Yet, through its inception, the Internet has been forged as a medium of instantaneous transnational communication, whereby once this transnational space is entered into, it is beyond any fixed borders of any state. Since we “live and breathe” information in every aspect of our lives, this causes some issues in relation to fostering transparent and accountable monitoring of this space.

Similar to the totalitarian regime explored by Orwell in his novel, the world is progressing towards a “Big Brother” institution. Due to the impact of standard Internet technologies, a large portion of information is being profiled, replicated, distributed and sold through its secret veil. Chillingly comparable to Orwell’s description of the instrumental spy telescreens, the use of computers and the Internet is explosively blurring the line between private and public life. This has been a paramount issue in relation to information disclosed by users on social networking services, since these sites revolve around the development of a circle of contacts and information without the foundation of privacy.

Facebook, being the largest database of people ever built, contains more personal data than any other source. Yet, since the company collects its main revenue by advertising through information provided from its members, it is more accurate to classify as primarily a publisher of information rather than a social space. Information collected by Facebook from a third party or by logging users’ actions is not subject to control by the user. This creates real implications in the provision of personal information on social networking sites without appropriate protection. To err on the side of caution, these networking sites often provide lengthy and tedious privacy policies in relation to the collection of data, however it would seem very optimistic to believe that all users agreeing to the terms have read this service agreement.

In my readings of Facebook’s policies, what has troubled me the most is learning that even when information has been removed from a profile, it does not get permanently deleted but remains viewable in cached and archived pages. Even where members have restricted the availability of their information, basic identifying information will still be available in search results across Facebook and third party search engines. Similar to a bank vault that stores valuables and important documents, a digital counterpart is formulated containing photos, contact details and personal information. The real angle is that data is vast becoming a commodity and is sold to businesses so that they better conform to demands of consumers. The problem is that this is provided without consent of members and without any chance of paying members who endorse products.

What’s more frightening is the level of technology social networking sites are amassing to ensure the accuracy and depth of information it collects from its users. Incorporating military automatic facial recognition technology on their site, Facebook is essentially in position to build the world’s largest privately held database of face prints without the awareness of its users. Reflecting the privacy violations in Nineteen Eighty-Four, facial recognition technology is no longer limited to the Internet medium but is used to record faces in public and business premises. The fact that facial recognition is able to learn more about a person every time a photo is uploaded may indicate that the site is compiling a vast photo database of ignorant users without consent. Police departments and government agencies around the world are incorporating social networking sites and facial recognition to catch criminals and monitor people. It may not seem so absurd to think the revolution has already begun.

The degree of information publicly available has also made identity theft easier than ever. Social networking sites are vast becoming personal key cards for robberies. Tracking has become so advanced that thieves are able to snap photos of potential victims and face match them on applications linked to Facebook and Instagram. Internet vandalism has also increased through ‘trolling’, where hackers deride the user behind a veil of anonymity. The mere scope of this damage is unrepairable and can have severe negative consequences on educational, employment and community endeavours. The lack of uniform Internet privacy laws over sovereigns has also meant that many of these perpetrators have not been held accountable for their actions.

I speak of this veil of anonymity with certain reservations because many victims who have fallen prey to cybercrimes are not afforded the same protection as other victims of crime. The problem lies in that, although legislation has been amended to address prosecution of cyber offenders, cybercrime is global whilst laws are restricted to nations. In an idealistic situation these laws can be enforced wholeheartedly through the cooperation of jurisdictions, however, in practicality this seems far too expectant. Within Australia, victims of identity theft and cybercrime are not afforded the same statutory rights as other victims and there are no services to allow action to limit the further use of identity that is stolen. Due to the growth of technology, cyber bullying is also growing and becoming more accessible. No longer does bullying involve physical or verbal abuse in the playground but follows victims to their homes. The increase in lobbying for better protection and the push to criminalize cyber bullying indicates a want for strict punishment against perpetrators. Cyber bullying is worst within social networking sites due to the interconnected friend network, easy methods of creating pages and accessing information about a person. Bullies also have the convenience of distributing abusive material on mutual friend’s newsfeeds and pages through the click of a button. What many of these youths do not understand is that once material is on the Internet, it cannot be fully removed and stigma remains with a person for the rest of their lives. Things are made worse by the fact that many of these bullies create additional accounts and avatar’s with the intention of using the account to bully and humiliate others. It is an old ode that children can be cruel, these social networking sites merely provide a tool for these youths to take it one step further.

Yet, I would be sanguine to say that cyber bullying is relegated only to children. The sad fact is that online bullying has crossed the threshold into the adult world. The online medium has also been used as a space to make cyber threats and harass others. The worrying fact is that within many jurisdictions, cyber stalking still does not remain an offence. It is becoming increasingly common also for prospective and current employers to do checks on potential and current employees by delving into social networking sites. Troublingly, a simple click of a ‘like’ button on Facebook can set in motion a potentially harmful chain of events that could lead to certain repercussions at work. Given the diverse nature of people’s opinions, there is plenty of room for latent workplace problems, ranging from smug comments made about work life to liking and joining certain groups and pages that are not accepted by employers. Exactly where do we draw the line between having our own opinions and thoughts and the ability to express them freely without prejudice, especially in employment?

Due to the growing number of users and companies joining Facebook and other social networks, calls have been made to incorporate social media policies in employee handbooks and termination protocols, so that both employees and employers are aware of what constitutes inappropriate behaviour online. But this in itself causes another concern of how far employment can interfere into the actions of an individual on an online medium. Although the bases of these policies centre around the fact that dismissal may be accepted where social media posts cause damage to the company’s reputation and business, the method of calibrating this still remains vague. The main issue is that due to the global nature of social media, even where privacy settings are placed to their maximum, the separation between home and work are less pronounced. This is made further restricted by the fact that perceived abuse or offensive posts on Facebook may still tender grounds for termination, even where it was made on the employees home computer or mobile device out of work hours. The clarity of safeguards and level of intrusiveness is ridiculously obscured.

Additionally, conduct that occurs on social networking sites is also privy to workplace harassment regulations. Yet, I can’t help but marvel at the fact that although an employee can be held liable for conduct towards a colleague on social networking sites for harassment, employers can avoid taking responsibility for actions committed by employees against other employees. The amount of hypocrisy that social networking allows businesses is uncanny. I still fail to understand how a business can hold its employee accountable for perceived negative action against the company but not against other employees within the company.

It is for these reasons that I have come to the painful conclusion that such intrusions facilitated by social networking sites strongly resemble Orwell’s dystopian predications of the corruption of expression and privacy. The technologies and identification systems present within social networking sites have created a murky middle ground that seriously blurs the public and private spheres. The main area of concern is that personal information on these sites is becoming increasingly public, although they have been placed under strict privacy settings from their users. The harsh truth is that social networking sites are providing a range of accessible personal information about its users, without the consent or knowledge of its users. With the eyes of the Internet, the ears of government, the mouth of business and brain of unfathomable personal information, social networking sites are vast becoming everyone’s new big brother.