The Facebook Stockholm Syndrome

I used to love Facebook. Then over time I started to find it irritating. Now I simply hate it. There, I said it. Once having probably been one of Facebook’s biggest unofficial brand ambassadors, checking it with ludicrous frequency, I now really want it out of my life. The reasons are few but varied, but mainly because it is a thief. Hours spent in there pass but they seem like minutes – minutes that I’ll never get back. It steals my time – time I need to devote to my son, my wife, myself and our collective future.

It’s also a thief in another way, but more on that later.

In concept, I still love that Facebook is a painless way to keep in touch with friends and family and you can see how their lives are going. It is in essence a 21st century way to ‘socialize’ albeit without ever having to leave your couch. If you allow it to, it simplifies communication with the people in your life. You can use its instant messaging feature, you can hold Skype calls and of course email each other using a Facebook-based email account. It has it all. It is its own internet-within-an-internet, which people don’t (want to?) leave as it is comfortable and safe.

Safe? Think again.

That it is an almost complete sub-internet ecosystem, is what I am increasingly concerned about. Until recently it was a privately-owned company with a meagre bottom line (from advertising – more on that shortly), but on May 18th 2012 it went public and suddenly it was owned by shareholders – no longer run by its founders. This simply means they have to make a profit. Moreover, floating on Wall St. means they have to make more money year over year – that’s how it works and if it doesn’t, heads will roll. It’s inevitable really when they see their user count plateau and inevitably diminish as people drift away to other social networking sites or simply log off all of them, Facebook included. I almost can’t wait for them to “myspace”.

Facebook has big plans – they actively wants to become the next evolutionary step of the internet. They are trying to hijack our mobile phones with Facebook Home and Facebook Chat Heads to hijack the way you use your phones and to draw you ever back into their lair. They are even rumoured to be launching a Facebook phone with the help of Taiwanese phone manufacturer HTC. Imagine that – it logs all your calls and records them too. It’s the wettest of wet dreams for the secret services of the world. Not looking at you at all NSA/CIA…

Anyway, back to their money-making. Their trade is information and they were doing it before they hit the NASDAQ, but have to do it now more than ever. Well, the fact is they learn about you in so many ways because you let them. Because without thinking, you want to. I remember my rush to get photos of our holidays up on the web within hours of returning from the trip then checking hourly to see how many likes they got and what people said about them. But every time you do so, you are surrendering your precious information and making someone money somewhere.

Every time you click the Like button on a third party website, a counter rolls over somewhere in the accounting department at Facebook. Hands up how many of you know that if you have Facebook open in one browser tab and you are browsing elsewhere in other tabs (within the same browser that is), that Facebook knows what you are browsing for, what sites you are visiting? You don’t in fact even need to click Like anywhere – the very fact that it is there on any given page means that it is following you around, logging all the websites you visit and storing it for “statistical use” even though you might in fact be logged out of Facebook!

The simple fact is that when you signed up for Facebook, you did NOT read the terms and conditions. I didn’t and I’d say less than 1% of all people did (those masochists that did were probably legal experts and/or privacy shills). The simple abbreviated summary of those T&C’s is this – “you do not own your data on Facebook. Facebook owns it utterly. You have no legal rights to it at all.” Yes you took the photos or are in them, but they belong completely to Facebook merely by being on their site. How awful is that? They knew you wouldn’t read the T&Cs. Now IT/Tech Support people always rail against users who never bother to “RTFM” (Read The *ucking Manual), but I suspect legal experts equally rage against people who never take the time to “RTFT&Cs’.

So Facebook is “data-mining” your life like you wouldn’t believe. You wouldn’t put up with it from a stalker, so why put up with it from a company that uses you merely as a cash cow. They brought in a whopping 5 billion dollars in revenue last year, by selling your information – and you never see a cent of it. You might think that is alright, but I no longer do. Having worked almost two decades in the computer industry, I have always been more security conscious than most, ritually installing multiple security programs, but if you buy into Facebook, you are willingly surrendering your data to them. Ah – the gift that keeps on giving…to Facebook that is.

Call it a digital-age Stockholm Syndrome if you will.

If any of you feel somewhat like me and want to continue using it, but vastly reducing their parasitism on you, there are ways to continue using it but limiting their ability to monitor and track you. The assumptions here are that your computer uses some version of Windows and your phone is either an iPhone or an Android device.

1. Let’s face it, chances you are using a pathetic password on Facebook. Basic rule – if your password is easy to remember it will be (hilariously) easy to crack. Generate a tough password using http://www.deadboltpasswordgenerator.com/ or some similar service. Force yourself to memorize your new password. Or use my favourite password program Lastpass (http://www.lastpass.com/) which remembers your password for you. With Lastpass, you remember one single master password and it remembers all your myriad passwords for you. Genius!

2. Lock down the security and privacy settings within Facebook itself on your computer – as many crucial settings are (deliberately?) missing from the smartphone versions of Facebook. Follow all the recommendations listed in this PDF (page 3 onwards) from the Center for Internet Security: http://msisac.cisecurity.org/resources/reports/documents/FacebookPaperSM_May2013.pdf. In short – always choose the most restrictive settings you can tolerate.

3. If you only use Facebook from a laptop or desktop computer, then try to only access Facebook in one particular browser and don’t open other tabs in that browser. Also make sure you NEVER access Facebook using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (it has the poorest security of any of the main four browsers). I’d recommend Google’s Chrome browser as their extensions and plugins are the most developed. FireFox is a very close second and most of the extensions below exist for both browsers. So assuming you are using Chrome, I’d recommend installing the following extensions from the Google extensions catalog at https://chrome.google.com/webstore/category/extensions?hl=en-US:
A. WOT Safe Search – the World Of Trust extension warns you when a link you follow is on their black list for containing malicious or counterfeit software, or is known as a phishing site. Lots of links published by people or groups in Facebook are to dodgy sites. This helps you avoid them.
B. DoNotTrackMe – It blocks web pages (including Facebook) from tracking your every move around the internet and can provide statistics on how many attempts it blocked.
C. Privacyfix – As the name suggests, it puts you in charge of what you are sharing while browsing the web – even when you are logged out of Facebook and other social networking sites.
D. Ghostery – Overlaps with what the others above all do, but is worth having.

4. Always have anti-virus and anti-malware software installed on your computer. Tablets and smartphones are less likely to get hit by these problems, but it’s on the rise on them also sadly. Linux and Mac users can find AV programs but generally speaking they are safe enough…for now. You can get basic free AV software for Windows from lots of companies now – Avast, AVG, AntiVir and even Microsoft’s own Security Essentials. All can be obtained from Filehippo – my favourite software repository site here – http://filehippo.com/software/antimalware/

5. Install a software firewall which by default limits and tracks all incoming and outgoing internet traffic and ‘sniffs’ it for dodgy communications that computer operating systems don’t routinely inform you about. The leading options here are ZoneAlarm, Comodo Firewall and Outpost among many others. Again, get ’em here – http://filehippo.com/software/security/. Now if your name is Bradley Manning, Julian Assange or Eric Snowden, you might want to invest in a hardware firewall, which is a powerful computer system that does nothing but check every bit of data that enters and leaves your network, but they cost silly money for you and me and are usually pretty difficult to configure.

6. Regularly remove cookies from your computer using tools like CCleaner, ATF-Clean or Glary Utilities as the cookies leave behind details of your browsing sessions and can be accessed by unscrupulous people roaming around your computer (since you don’t have a firewall installed) or dodgy sleeper programs that you installed.

7. You should also install an anti-keylogging program like KeyScrambler. It is software that encrypts anything you type into a browser window, stopping memory-resident malware from quietly copying your sensitive details and sending them off-system to a remote computer. KeyScrambler is available here – http://www.qfxsoftware.com/

Now for some non software/hardware-related tips:

8. NEVER log into a new site with Facebook Connect – EVER. Signing up for a shiny new website you’d like to investigate, you may be greeted with the ‘Sign in with Facebook’ (or Google/Twitter etc.) Simply put – don’t. Almost always you have the choice to create an account the old/hard way – supplying your email address and choosing a password. Yes using Facebook’s “one-click” authentication service makes it easier and much faster to log in, but it just lets them track you even more. If you cannot manually create an account then you should consider walking away from it.

9. NEVER click the ‘Like’ button you see on external websites as they link back to Facebook in the background without your consent, giving them more information on you and your preferences and browsing history.

10. NEVER ‘check in’ anywhere on your phone. And not just on Facebook by the way – if an app asks you you should think seriously about saying no. Even if you disable this, your phone is probably giving up that date anyway so disable GPS location services from your phone’s settings. If you never rely on it – just disable it as you don’t need it and it helps keep your battery going longer.

So now after learning how much Mr. Zuckerberg and his bunch of data pirates are literally looting you of your ‘youness’, do you still want to use Facebook? It’s ok, I understand if you don’t. At least you can severely hinder his attempts to line his and his shareholder’s pockets and starve the beast.

One question you may be thinking is whether there are there any alternatives to Facebook that are secure and bullet-proof? The answer is no – simply no. There are a great many other social networking sites (see here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_social_networking_websites), but none are secure, because by definition they want you to give up your information. It’s called networking for a reason! It’s always best to assume that everything you give to the internet is wide open for all to see. So act accordingly. The safest social network is still with your best friends down the pub – simple as.

So you have to find the middle ground you are willing to accept – let them track you and continue to enjoy the stultifying, fake world of Facebook or delete everything everywhere and get back to your life. As a character in The Matrix put it – “You take the blue pill: the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill: you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” In essence, you need to decide your level of involvement, but if you give it all up to the Zuck, at least know that you are giving it up to begin with and that someone is making money off your back. Forewarned is forearmed as they say.

I recommend you to chose the red pill. Perhaps adulterated with a little blue to keep some pep in your step.

Nota Bene – the gargantuan irony of me posting this to Facebook is not at all lost on me. I plan to starve the aforementioned beast, but I will post my blog links from time to time. I might even squeeze out the odd Like (always within Facebook of course) or comment. Better out than in as they say…

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