Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
*This is a draft in Progress, & a combination of a first paper revision/second paper

If one accepts the premise that we are unlikely to revert to a pre-social network society, then the only way to free ourselves from unwanted invasion of our privacy is to transition to a social network that allows its users to control the flow of information, restricting access of this information to other users within the social network rather than allowing the information to aggregate among a centralized server that has the ability to distribute this information in ways that infringe upon the privacy of the network’s users. However, we are living in a world where Facebook is so deeply embedded in our lives that the process of transitioning to a new social network that is not straightforward. The idea has enormous appeal, but the process of achieving a transition of this scale presents significant challenges. I examine two separate issues in order to gain a better understanding of whether we can transition to a Utopian version of Facebook and what challenges we would face in doing this.


Moving off of Facebook and onto a decentralized social network involves just that: moving. Transitioning comes with a cost, and if the cost of transitioning is higher than a consumer’s perceived benefit from moving, he or she is likely to stay put. This raises two important questions: (1) What is the cost that consumers perceive of moving off of Facebook and into a new type of virtual realm, and (2) What are the consumers’ perceived benefits? I worry that it may be difficult to persuade users of Facebook, who have been embedded in the culture of Facebook for quite some time now, that the benefits of moving outweigh the costs. Facebook has the advantage of having been integrated into our society for several years now, whereas any competing social network, whether decentralized or not, will force users to abandon the virtual time capsule that Facebook has created for them over the years in order to become part of a new one. The advent of the timeline seems to me a reinforcement of the challenge of unplugging from Facebook in order to plug in somewhere new. Consumers may perceive a loss of their Facebook “lives” as something tragic and not very different from losing photo albums and mementos in a fire. For those who are relying on Facebook to house memories and track life events that would otherwise be lost to them, the labor involved in moving and storing this time capsule somewhere else seems very costly to me. While the benefits of moving are significant, I worry that because the costs of moving are so obvious to consumers and the benefits are less apparent to the typical Facebook user, the process of persuading the Facebook community to move would be extremely difficult.

Vulnerability to Unwanted Invasion of Privacy

What if we did make the switch? Perhaps I’m wrong about consumer behavior with respect to Facebook, or maybe there's a way to prove to Facebook’s users that the benefits of moving outweigh the costs. Would a decentralized system be “safe”? What if creating a decentralized social network may even inspired hackers to try to break into the system more so than the current use of Facebook? Hackers believe that all information should be free and no one should have the privilege of opting out. It would therefore be an important symbol and if it would be as "impossible" to crack as its creators say it would be, might they double their efforts to try to break it down?

Even with a direct connection from one person to another, there is still the chance that someone can use a "man in the middle attack" to spoof a connection, so all of the data can flow into his machine before it flows out to the intended recipient. And hackers love a challenge; try to put a wall up in front of them, and watch them try their hardest to tear it down. Even with the best kind of encryption, there's always going to be someone out there with enough time and brainpower on their hands to write an algorithm to break through. Will it take more effort and time than other ways of communicating? Yes. But it can still be done. The problem could be that people will feel "too safe" using this new type of device and that will create its own blind spot.


A social network that doesn’t spy on its users is ideal, but difficult to achieve. The challenge of getting consumers motivated enough to abandon Facebook is difficult, because the process of unplugging entails a loss of a virtual existence that is bonding itself to its users through sentimentality. It is also incredibly difficult to help Facebook users understand the meaning and importance of privacy; many users are only aware of peer-to-peer privacy and have not considered the flow of information from the users to those who control Facebook. These users may not fully appreciate the value of a new kind of social network, and may fall temptation to the convenience of staying with the mainstream, established way of conducting social networking.

Even if we overcome this challenge, the question of security and privacy should still be considered in the event that we can’t create a system that is impenetrable to unwanted intrusion. If the system we create and adopt feels secure but is not in fact secure, we could be vulnerable to having our privacy invaded by third parties whether we permit it or not.

-- JessicaGuzik - 11 May 2012



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r3 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:31:52 - IanSullivan
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