Would the Real Account Holder Please Log On

image courtesy of: under30ceo.com, taken 6 Jan, 2014.

In today’s Western society, we are constantly connected. I know this sounds like an ambiguous statement, but let’s face it: it’s true. In a talk by Beeban Kidron, film director and producer, she stated that the average Brit looks at their phone 150 times per day. Whether it be checking up on the news, looking through your Facebook newsfeed or playing a quick game of Candy Crush, we as a society are addicts.

In my recent research, I was looking into online security and data protection, and a particular article caught my attention. The journalist looked at how easy it was to steal someone’s identity if given access to his or her Facebook account. The result? Far too easy. If you go into the settings menu in the top right corner of your page, click on Account Settings, select the General tab, there is an option to download your Facebook history. This is a log of every action – clicked or typed – that you’ve ever made in your time as a Facebook member. Search in the keyword bar and you can pull up any specific details that there may be. If you’ve ever sent someone your banking details through a message to transfer your money through online banking, if you’ve ever sent your address to your family, if you’ve ever had someone post on your wall wishing you a happy birthday; your personal details are all there and stealing someone’s identity is done at the click of a mouse. You know those times where you accidentally leave your account logged on in the library, in an internet café, or wherever in a public location, and someone puts an obnoxious post on your wall saying how silly you were to leave yourself logged on? You might want to think twice about whom your account is falling into the hands.

While there is obviously a law aspect to this issue – I’m not saying that identity theft is never condemned or never leads to prosecution – the EU is currently reforming this law, so that it can more easily apply to all member countries. One of the key features of the reform is that if an individual requests for their information to be erased/forgotten from any company’s database, the company must comply, unless they have some legitimate reason for storing the data (according to the Europa website, this is to ensure that deleting information does not counteract freedom of expression or freedom of the press, and does not result in controversial political statements like attempting to erase history). The situation becomes more complex, however, when someone makes a request for information to be completely forgotten, as a company does not control who copies information off of a webpage, and tracing this flow of information has great challenges. As of yet though, this reform has not been passed through, and is still in the working stages.

Looking at transparency reports is further troubling. By browsing transparency reports by large online companies like Facebook and Google, one can easily see requests for user information, requests for content removal, and government regulation and intervention trends. Unsurprisingly, the United States, in the case of both companies, is by far the worst, with the most requests for user information. With the exception of the American outlier, the UK has a high amount of requests, with reasonable rates of data actually being produced as a result of these requests. So is it bothersome that my government can ask Facebook or Google for information from my account and for it to be blindly handed over? According to Facebook, it’s not quite as simple as that. On their policy and terms of use pages, it becomes clear that minimal information is compromised whenever possible (this is not to say that corporate access to your information for marketing purposes is not a prevalent issue). Shuffling through Facebook’s responses to mass criticism concerning online security and content, it seems that Facebook wants to create as open a forum as possible. While they obviously see that privacy, and ethical content are issues that need to be addressed, they don’t want to compromise the integrity of the Facebook concept: to promote freedom of expression and to create a dialogical, engaging platform for the everyday person.

Where, then, is the missing link? If Facebook isn’t going to change its concept – which I don’t necessarily think it should – then how do we protect ourselves against threats of identity theft, child exploitation, and intellectual property theft? I think it’s well time that the rest of the world catches up. I know public policy and federal law don’t change overnight, but we’ve been living in a social networking world for about a decade: it’s time to bring on the change. It absolutely disgusts me that I can log on to Facebook and look through hate pages with comment after comment of blatant cyber-bullying. There was a case in Vancouver, Canada about a year ago with a girl named Amanda Todd. She had flashed someone online; who had taken a screen shot of a teenage girl’s chest, and taunted her by mass distributing the image. She changed schools and attempted to part with the mockery, but couldn’t escape it. She finally took to YouTube to plea for help, and to no avail, committed suicide. As someone who went through bullying in my early teens, I had major sympathy, and was truly bothered by this story. Out of curiosity, I went on Facebook to look at the RIP pages. There, I found mixed comments; some mourned this girl, while others took full advantage of the opportunity to vent, and essentially said that she deserved to die. Worse, many of the posts came from people in other parts of the world, and so naturally I asked myself why do these people feel that they know enough to make such awful bold statements? The problem doesn’t lie with the communication medium, but those who post hateful or incriminating words need to be held accountable.

At the end of the day, legislation needs to step up to the plate, and we need to stop pointing fingers as the medium and start holding accountability to those involved. The law needs to treat online content the same as real-life actions and statements. Some might say that much of the world already does this, but I think it is most definitely not at the level that it should be. When the news reported a murderous crime, did we blame the news station for publicizing a condemnable act? Of course not. Social networks are social media, and that’s all for which they are accountable.

Though I’m covering a lot of topics that may seem overwhelmingly, I think my point is that they are all connected and the issues that Western society face related to social media are issues of accountability. If you go up to a stranger, and hand them your credit card, you cannot be shocked when they use it. When you hand a teen your driver’s license, there’s a good chance someone will pose as you and use it as a fake ID. And when you give angry youth the opportunity to vent – as we’ve particularly experienced in Vancouver with the hockey riots – there’s a good chance they will take it, no matter how ridiculous it might seem. Just like there is no guarantee in life that you will not fall victim to a crime, there is no guarantee that you are safe online; just like there is in real life, however, there are always precautions one can take to avoid this victimization. What is lacking is the initiative. With that said, take it upon yourself to move your mouse one inch, click on that icon in the corner, and log out.

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