Personal Tech

Which Is Worse, WikiLeaks or Facebook?

Your privacy is under attack, but do you care?

What was originally supposed to be a fount of knowledge and a tool of enlightenment for global communication -- the Internet -- has been perverted into a sort of Sears catalog that tracks your every mouse click and drains away your free time (and more often than not your money). 

Yet it's still generally celebrated and heralded as the great information revolution: Look at how many Twitter followers I have! Behold my countless Facebook friends! So how come it feels like we're all sheep being led down the digital path to the slaughterhouse? 

Witness the recent battle to become Time Magazine's Person of the Year. Readers voted for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The editors picked Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg instead. But both can be viewed as serious threats to privacy. 

In one sense, WikiLeaks is all about tearing off the veneer of privacy. It encourages whistleblowers who have access to secret information to expose hypocrisy, corruption, and untruths told by governments and companies. Whether that's always a good idea depends on the situation and your point of view. If a drug company is not being forthcoming about tainted children's medicine, all good parents would think that's a bad thing and want the company to be exposed. On the other hand, if a government is secretly colluding with another foreign power to track down terrorists -- like the situation in Yemen -- and lying about it, should that be exposed?

By positioning itself thus, WikiLeaks has done two things: It's tapped into the original fantasy of what the Web would be, namely a democratizing force spreading information and knowledge, and supposedly made governments responsible for their actions. Children in the Sudan can learn about quantum mechanics for free, and families in Mongolia can learn better husbandry techniques and never go hungry again -- all via the World Wide Web!

Of course, things haven't turned out that way. 

Probably because everybody is wasting too much time posting piano-playing cat videos to their social network, which brings us to Facebook.

Facebook, whose founder Time chose hyperbolically as person of the year "for creating a new system of exchanging information and for changing how we live our lives," tries to rip off the veil of privacy too -- but it makes only a slight pretense of bettering the world (Mark Zuckerberg wants to help "people connect and share"). 

In actuality, its only purpose is to collect information on its members in order to make money off that data. It can be in the form of ads directed specifically at you based on your interests (those sneaky "you might like" pronouncements on the right-hand side of the page). It can also be in the form of virtual goods or gifts, not to mention all the digital games people play pretending to be agrarian reformers.

And Facebook has a lot of information on its users. It can know where they live, how old they are, what sites they visit, what foods they like, where they work, where they go on vacation, where they like to party, and who their friends are. In Facebook-speak, it's all mapped to your "social graph." Translation: they know who's been naughty and who's been nice.

That can be very valuable information for marketers who want to reach people they think are most likely to buy their products. One could, for example, not only put cat food ads on the Facebook pages of feline fans, but also pick only those people whose friends are also cat lovers.

So who's a bigger threat to your privacy?

Most of the WikiLeaks documents are important but not earth-shattering -- do we really care if some diplomat described a foreign leader in unflattering terms? (Guess they didn't listen to their mother's advice.) And there's plenty of "dog bites man" information that has served as a reminder that all is not as sanguine as some governments would pretend. 

On on the other hand, Facebook -- while often frivolous and fun and a possible goldmine for advertisers -- has a dark side too. It has also become a tool for cyberbullying and enmity on a scale heretofore unavailable. People get fired for what they post to Facebook. Others have been robbed by thieves via Facebook.

That's the problem: Privacy is intimately tied to the issue of security.

WikiLeaks raised a potential problem, and so far, it's only a potential: that revealing corruption or prevarication could affect the security of a nation or a military operation. However, the same connection exists between businesses stalking customers online and threats to your personal security.

The most obvious cases are those in which people reveal information regarding their whereabouts. People have been robbed because they mentioned in a Facebook post that they would be out at a concert (remember, not all those FB friends are really friends). And there are cases in which disgruntled ex-partners have stalked those who've rejected them. Now Facebook allows you to make that even easier by letting everyone know where you are on a minute-by-minute basis.

There are other ways in which breeches in personal privacy can lead to breeches in security, of course. No Web site is impervious to hackers and cybercriminals, for example. Witness the recent break-ins at the gossip site Gawker in which more than 1 million passwords were apparently stolen, or the case of fast food kingpin McDonald's, where hackers made off with e-mail names, phone numbers, addresses, and birth dates. That's valuable information for any one wishing to drain bank accounts or commit credit card fraud.

So is anyone worrying about the attack on privacy?

Parents are obviously concerned. A survey released this month by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping families negotiate the changing world of media and technology, queried more than 2,000 parents. It found that 85 percent of them are more worried about online privacy than they were five years ago. 

Furthermore, 91 percent of parents said they believe that search engines like Google and social networking sites like Facebook should not be able to share kids' physical location. In addition, another smaller poll conducted by Gallup of 814 Internet users in the U.S. found that two thirds think advertisers shouldn't be allowed to track Web surfers and then target ads based on the sites they visit.

Technology companies and advertisers argue that such tracking is harmless and stopping it would fetter online commerce. And it is big business. Online advertising accounted for $12.1 billion in revenue for the first half of this year, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

Nevertheless, at least some lawmakers and regulators see danger on the horizon. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission recently recommended creating a "Do Not Track" Web tool that consumers could use to review what information businesses collected about them and block companies from tracking their Web searches and logging all the sites they visit. It would be the equivalent of a "Do Not Call" list for the 21st century. 

Close on the heels of the FTC report, the Commerce Department issued its own report arguing for a new set of "fair information principles" that would in theory give consumers clear notice about what was being tracked and by whom. Web users could also correct errors in that information or opt out. However, Internet companies would help determine exactly what the rules would be and how they would work.

So which is worse: WikiLeaks or Facebook?

Governments are better equipped than individuals to protect themselves. They have the power to pressure organizations and bring legal leverage to bear on any group. Individuals, on the other hand, may not even know how or what information is being used against them. Currently, companies like Facebook don't have to tell you what they know about you or with whom they've shared the information.

Perhaps the best idea would be to use the attacks on privacy to fight the attacks on privacy. Get the people behind WikiLeaks to turn their attention toward finding whistleblowers in Silicon Valley. Then we'd know what really goes on behind the social networking Web pages and search engine databases.

John R. Quain is a personal tech columnist for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.