Government

From A to Z: Whistleblowing vs. social networking

Mark Zuckerberg was Time's 2010 Person of the Year. Julian Assange, the popular choice of Time readers, faces simultaneous criminal charges from two nations. Some might say they are very similar at least as regards privacy, while others see almost nothing in common between them.

The activities of Julian Assange's WikiLeaks have been called espionage, terrorism, and whistleblowing. The operations of Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook have been called spying, stalking, and social networking. Many of the criticisms leveled at each group sound much like those they've leveled at each other, and both have also been hailed as noble, visionary endeavors. Julian Assange sits in the UK waiting to see whether he will be extradited to the United States on espionage charges for WikiLeaks' involvement in "cablegate" (a massive leak of US diplomatic messages) or to Sweden for sexual assault charges he claims are baseless. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg's face graces the cover of Time and he has impromptu meetings with his fan Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI.

They are not unaware of each other.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been an active critic of authoritarian secrecy for years. He was a vocal member of cypherpunk mailing lists, created WikiLeaks as a way to undermine attempts to deceive the public, and wrote the first open source port scanner software called Strobe as well as a deniable encryption program called Rubberhose. His views on the differences between himself and Zuckerberg are bluntly stated:

What are the differences between Mark Zuckerberg and me? I give private information on corporations to you for free, and I'm a villain.

Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he's Man of the Year.

As if that was not a harsh enough indictment, Assange also said, as quoted in The Next Web:

Facebook is the most appalling spy machine that has ever been invented.

Combine these two statements Julian Assange has made about Zuckerberg and his social media empire on the Web -- and yes, it is an empire, with "like" button colonies springing up all over other people's websites -- and you might get the impression that Zuckerberg is running the world's largest, most successful, and most popularly loved domestic intelligence operation for the federal government. This impression could easily color your reading of a passage in the Time magazine article declaring Zuckerberg the Person of the Year 2010, describing a scene in the Facebook "Aquarium" conference room:

The door opened, and a distinguished-looking gray-haired man burst in — it's the only way to describe his entrance — trailed by a couple of deputies. He was both the oldest person in the room by 20 years and the only one wearing a suit. He was in the building, he explained with the delighted air of a man about to secure ironclad bragging rights forever, and he just had to stop in and introduce himself to Zuckerberg: Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, pleased to meet you.

They shook hands and chatted about nothing for a couple of minutes, and then Mueller left. There was a giddy silence while everybody just looked at one another as if to say, What the hell just happened?

After reading those Assange quotes[1], it might seem like the director of the FBI was personally thanking the founder of Facebook for making his job so much easier. The infamous first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (the length of whose tenure as director of the FBI and its predecessor the Bureau of Investigation is still longer than the entire rest of the time the FBI has existed) never had it so easy -- right? Of course, the world is not so simple and black-and-white as all that. Ultimately, while the massive social networking site is clearly a powerful tool for aggregating the effects of rampant privacy abdication, it is in fact abdication rather than violation that is the real problem. "Facebook is not the real privacy threat"; we are.

This does not mean that Facebook is innocent in all things. In some respects, it tricks us into giving up our privacy. It does this not just by using the seductive siren call of social networking, but also by giving us a directly and intentionally inaccurate impression of our privacy. To the extent that Facebook staff members believe what they are saying when they say they do no such thing, they are lying -- to themselves. Policies change so that information that was under our control before can now be aggregated by others we label "friends" for the whole world to see. Interface and feature updates come with Facebook automatically resetting all privacy options for our profiles to much less protective configurations. While Facebook is not nearly as clear about it as a truly conscientious custodian of personal information should be, we should be cynical enough to realize that the corporation is exposing data about us to its "partners" in ways we would not approve if directly asked.

Let us take a step back and examine that visit by FBI Director Mueller one more time. In that same Time article, on page nine, we find this:

Mueller's visit wasn't a one-off. He was there because Zuckerberg has a better database than he does. Facebook has a richer, more intimate hoard of information about its citizens than any nation has ever had, and the U.S. government sometimes comes knocking, subpoena in hand, looking to borrow some. "We feel like it's our responsibility to push back on that stuff," Zuckerberg says, "so oftentimes someone will come with a subpoena, and we'll go to court and say, 'We don't think this is enough.' Ultimately I think this stuff gets used for good."

This reads a little like a common pattern in the political life of Thomas Jefferson, but set on its head. Anyone who reads much about Thomas Jefferson -- who goes just a bit beyond the lightly salted pablum of high school American History classes -- may run across a pattern of behavior where the man elucidated high ideals and argued both passionately and persuasively for them then, when confronted by men he held in some esteem who disagreed, he crumpled like a cheap suit. It happened over and over again, even when his opposition could not present a meaningful argument that effectively countered any of his own arguments. The Declaration of Independence contains nothing that directly undermines the practice of holding slaves because Jefferson took it out when others opposed him on it. The US Constitution -- on whose construction he consulted from afar, acting as US ambassador to France -- contains a basis for copyright and patent law in part because Isaac McPherson and others convinced him to let his discomfort over government granted monopolies fall by the wayside.

Zuckerberg, on the other hand, seems to follow similar behavioral patterns for diametrically opposed reasons. Where Jefferson held high ideals then crumbled under pressure, Zuckerberg appears to begin with the idea that he should just give government access to whatever it wants, but feels pressured to offer token resistance first. In the end, it looks like the major difference between the crusade to eliminate the barriers of secrecy surrounding governments and corporations and the crusade to eliminate the barriers of secrecy keeping people apart is that Assange understands the difference between secrecy and privacy, while Zuckerberg does not.

Perhaps Julian Assange was right about Facebook, after all.

Notes

1: Julian Assange is not the only person commenting about the two of them and their most famous projects. Mark Zuckerberg has commented on the WikiLeaks flap, too, but his commentary comes off as much more complimentary:

Technology usually wins with these things.

It almost reads like a paraphrase of John Gillmore's famous statement in Time magazine, 1993:

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.

About

Chad Perrin is an IT consultant, developer, and freelance professional writer. He holds both Microsoft and CompTIA certifications and is a graduate of two IT industry trade schools.

12 comments
tommyfagan
tommyfagan

Interesting comparison : ) . A user may have decided to limit who can see their information but, they have to return periodically to make sure that choice is still set because FB resets those choices or makes new settings that go around those choices. That behavior is devious and being insincere to FB users. It is also not the users fault entirely. I think denying that FB is culpable for its behavior is ridiculous. Tommy @ inventory control

comconcepts
comconcepts

Despite my misgivings in my original comment, I have to say that your article has brought about a great debate an some interesting opinions. I re-read your article with the sole purpose of seeing the different ways that Assange and Zuckerberg are being represented in the media and how opinions about each of them are so very opposite. I have to agree with you that when I first read this I didn't get it. Very good article and nice rebuttal. Dennis Edmondson Jr Computing Concepts LLC

mtndive
mtndive

" it is in fact abdication rather than violation that is the real problem. ???Facebook is not the real privacy threat???; we are". I agree with that statement about halfway. Yes, I think people are willingly giving up personal information on the poor assumption that FB will not divulge it, or at least not the sensitive parts (if they are even thining about it at all). Yes, that is their fault and their problem. However, FB routinely changes and resets its privacy settings. A user may have decided to limit who can see their information but, they have to return periodically to make sure that choice is still set because FB resets those choices or makes new settings that go around those choices. That behavior is devious and being insincere to FB users. It is also not the users fault entirely. I think denying that FB is culpable for its behavior is ridiculous.

RockerGeek!
RockerGeek!

"It's dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door, if you don't keep your feet there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." Great advice for the internet, too. Security wise- I hate Facebook. Always updating security, which changes your settings. I go and check my security settings often. I don't play games on FB and don't really take any more quizzes. I like groups, and that's about it. And now I can kind of agree w/Assange's statement about Facebook being a "spy" tool after reading yesterday about that 13 yr old boy who was interrogated by the FBI b/c of a FB post. But I don't think FB is out to get us People just need to learn to be careful on ALL aspects of web use- even on forums like TechRepublic. Even if you don't go online ever but to check email, your information is on the web. Census records ;)

comconcepts
comconcepts

I honestly can't tell if what you've written is what you actually believe or if you are intentionally painting this in such a Black and White picture. You color Assange as an Egotistical Semi-Traitor and you color Zuckerberg as a Spineless, Naive, FBI Sycophant. I think the real truth in your article comes in one sentence, "Ultimately, while the massive social networking site is clearly a powerful tool for aggregating the effects of rampant privacy abdication, it is in fact abdication rather than violation that is the real problem." Assange gives up data that isn't his, he has no right to give it up, willingly or not, knowingly or not. The data the Zuckerberg has his hands on was already given up, willingly if not knowingly. I don't think this is a case of Whistleblowing vs Social Networking, it's a case of Knowingly Distributing Private Data vs Giving Up Private Data in Total Ignorance. One is illegal and one is just stupid, at least that's how it seems to me.

apotheon
apotheon

> However, FB routinely changes and resets its privacy settings. A user may have decided to limit who can see their information but, they have to return periodically to make sure that choice is still set because FB resets those choices or makes new settings that go around those choices. That behavior is devious and being insincere to FB users. It is also not the users fault entirely. I think denying that FB is culpable for its behavior is ridiculous. Nowhere in the article does it deny that the people who run Facebook are culpable for their behavior. What the article does say, and fairly explicitly, is much the same stuff you just said about what Facebook does wrong. For instance: "This does not mean that Facebook is innocent in all things. In some respects, it tricks us into giving up our privacy. It does this not just by using the seductive siren call of social networking, but also by giving us a directly and intentionally inaccurate impression of our privacy. To the extent that Facebook staff members believe what they are saying when they say they do no such thing, they are lying ??? to themselves. Policies change so that information that was under our control before can now be aggregated by others we label ???friends??? for the whole world to see. Interface and feature updates come with Facebook automatically resetting all privacy options for our profiles to much less protective configurations. While Facebook is not nearly as clear about it as a truly conscientious custodian of personal information should be, we should be cynical enough to realize that the corporation is exposing data about us to its ???partners??? in ways we would not approve if directly asked." In short, your supposed objection to the article basically just restated the least egregious behavior in which Facebook engages that the article identifies. In short, you paraphrased a paragraph in the article, then used that as some kind of disputation of the article, which I find odd.

apotheon
apotheon

As the article's author, I appreciate the kind words. I also agree with your assessment of the steps we must take to protect ourselves, and think your LOTR quote is well-chosen.

apotheon
apotheon

I think your interpretation of the article misses some key points that are critical to fully understanding it. 1. From the first paragraph, it is clear that there are some definite similarities in the kinds of mixed opinions people have about both WikiLeaks and Facebook -- including the idea that each of them is violating someone's privacy. Despite this, they are treated very differently. In fact, they are treated so very differently as to effectively be treated to diametrically opposing judgments. 2. "What are the differences between Mark Zuckerberg and me? I give private information on corporations to you for free, and I???m a villain. Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he???s Man of the Year." 3. "Zuckerberg is running the world???s largest, most successful, and most popularly loved domestic intelligence operation for the federal government." 4. "This does not mean that Facebook is innocent in all things. In some respects, it tricks us into giving up our privacy. It does this not just by using the seductive siren call of social networking, but also by giving us a directly and intentionally inaccurate impression of our privacy." 5. "In the end, it looks like the major difference between the crusade to eliminate the barriers of secrecy surrounding governments and corporations and the crusade to eliminate the barriers of secrecy keeping people apart is that Assange understands the difference between secrecy and privacy, while Zuckerberg does not." There are two concluding statements that I think directly conflict with some of your interpretation of the article. One of them concludes the main article, and the other concludes the notes section that follows it: * "Perhaps Julian Assange was right about Facebook, after all." * "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." (attributions for quotes, where necessary, are in the article)

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

I'm not an expert at what is available on Wikileaks or the Details of the Freedom of information act but I would venture to say that not all of the information released by Wikileaks was done so "illegaly". There is also the responsibility of a whistleblower to bring about truth and justice. I do not know where the line between good journalism and treason is so I think that is where the conversation should go. On social networking, I see it as a modern form of communication. Like a letter you send in bulk to your friends or a "party line" phone call. You expect that no one is reading your mail and that only the people you called are on the line. It's important to be able to communicate to a large group of people simultaneously. If I send a message to 100 people I may only want 100 people to see it. Changing your privacy settings without your knowledge is equivalent to the telco putting your 3-way call on the radio just because someone paid them to do it. You would not stand for this if your telco did it to you, why should we give Facebook any benefit of the doubt here?

RockerGeek!
RockerGeek!

I find that LOTR can fit into the real world quite a bit! And I have to give props where props are due for a well-written article. :)

jck
jck

applies to documents in the public domain (whether available immediately, or through a FOIA request). This does not include information categorized as "classified", "top secret", etc. That is legally documented under section 552, paragraph (b): [i]"(b) This section does not apply to matters that are-- (1)(A) specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy and (B) are in fact properly classified pursuant to such Executive order; "[/i] i.e.-anything on a classified US government network Some of the information that Julian Assange has published has been attained from sources within organizations that did not have the authority to release such information from said organization, e.g.- Bradley Manning having "allegedly" passed information to Wikileaks he attained from a secure, classified network of the United States military. Treason is the crime of betraying one's country. And, the dissemination of information which you have no right or authority to choose to give from your government...is a betrayal of the trust put with you by your government and country to do your job. So, I hope anyone who does that knowingly rots in prison for it and is ruined for life. As for social networking: it is kinda like a party call...over a megaphone. The internet is a broadcast medium. Your data is going across a connection that dozens of servers, switches, bridges, listening apparatuses (yes...people are monitoring it...), and a multitude of people have access to. So, it's really not like a private phone line...more like getting on a megaphone...and if it's encrypted...that's kinda like speaking pig latin or something so only you and your friends can understand it...but, it doesn't mean someone can't figure out how to understand what you said as well. But, I agree with the Facebook thing. They have no right to modify your preferences (security or otherwise), unless they are a legal violation. And then IMHO, they should be required to contact you and inform you of such so that you can decide of a legal way. And if they wanna take away an option, then they best do it in a manner that protects your privacy.

apotheon
apotheon

> Treason is the crime of betraying one's country. And, the dissemination of information which you have no right or authority to choose to give from your government...is a betrayal of the trust put with you by your government and country to do your job. One might argue that "betrayal" of the people ordering you around is not, in and of itself, treason -- and that following those orders is sometimes treason itself, when those orders run counter to the legitimate interests of the people and ideals of the country.

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