Technology, Thoughts & Trinkets

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How To Get Your Personal Information From Social Networks

Photo by Evan Long

Canadian news routinely highlights the ‘dangers’ that can be associated with social networking companies collecting and storing information about Canadian citizens. Stories and articles regularly discuss how hackers can misuse your personal information, how companies store ‘everything’ about you, and how collected data is disclosed to unscrupulous third parties. While many of these stories are accurate, insofar as they cover specific instances of harm and risky behaviour, they tend to lack an important next step; they rarely explain how Canadians can get educated on data collection, retention, and disclosure processes.

Let’s be honest: any next step has to be reasonable. Expecting Canadians to flee social media en masse and return to letter writing isn’t an acceptable (or, really, an appropriate) response. Similarly, saying “tighten your privacy controls” or “be careful what you post” are of modest value, at best; many Canadians are realizing that tightening their privacy controls does little when the companies can (and do) change their privacy settings without any notice. This post is inspired by a different next step. Rather than being inspired by fear emergent from ‘the sky is falling’ news stories, what if you were inspired by knowledge that you, yourself, gained? In what follows I walk you through how to compel social networking companies to disclose what information they have about you. In the process of filing these requests you’ll learn a lot more about being a member of these social networking services and, based on what you learn, can decide whether you want to change your involvement with particular social media companies.

I start by explaining why Canadians have a legal right to compel companies to disclose and make available the information that they retain about Canadian citizens. I then provide a template letter that you can send to social networking organizations with which you have a preexisting relationship. This template is, in effect, a tool that you can use to compel companies to disclose your personal information. After providing the template I explain the significance of some of the items contained in it. Next, I outline some of the difficulties or challenges you might have in requesting your personal information and a few ways to counteract those problems. Finally, I explain how you can complain if a company does not meet its legal obligation to provide you with a copy of your personal information. By the end of this post, you’ll have everything you need to request your personal information from the social networking services to which you subscribe. Continue reading

Brief: Social Networking and Canadian Privacy Law

Image by Jessica

Last year I was invited to submit a brief to the Canadian Parliament’s Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee. For my submission (.pdf), I tried to capture some of of the preliminary research findings that have been derived from social media and surveillance project I’m co-investigating with Colin Bennett. Specifically, the brief focuses on questions of jurisdiction, data retention, and data disclosure in the context of social media use in Canada. The ultimate aim of the submission was to give the committee members insight into the problems that Canadians experience when accessing the records held by social networking companies.

The project, and our research for it, has been funded through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner’s Contributions Program. Anything contained in the brief is not necessarily representative of the Office’s own positions or stances.

Abstract/Introduction:

In this submission, I highlight some of our analyses of 20 social networking sites’ privacy  policies and findings about Canadians’ ability to access their own personal information that social networking sites store. These findings let us understand how the companies running these services understand their legal jurisdictional obligations and the retention of personally identifiable information. Moreover, these discoveries let us ascertain the actual access that Canadians have to profiles that they and the identities that networking services Canadians associate with are developing. Together, these points reveal how social networking companies understand Canadians’ personal information, the conditions of data sharing, and the level of ease with which Canadians can access the information that they themselves contribute to these services. I conclude this submission by suggesting a few ways that could encourage these companies to more significantly comply with Canadian privacy laws.

Download (.pdf) “Social Networking and Canadian Privacy Law: Jurisdiction, Retention, and Disclosure

Canadian Social Media Surveillance: Today and Tomorrow

Image by Maureen Flynn-Burhoe

After disappearing for an extended period of time – to the point that the Globe and Mail reported that the legislation was dead – the federal government’s lawful access legislation is back on the agenda. In response to the Globe and Mail’s piece, the Public Safety Minister stated that the government was not shelving the legislation and, in response to the Minister’s statements, Open Media renewed the campaign against the bill. What remains to be seen is just how ‘lively’ this agenda item really is; it’s unclear whether the legislation remains on a back burner or if the government is truly taking it up.

While the politics of lawful access have been taken up by other parties, I’ve been pouring through articles and ATIP requests related to existing and future policing powers in Canada. In this post I first (quickly) outline communications penetration in Canada, with a focus on how social media services are used. This will underscore just how widely Canadians use digitally-mediated communications systems and, by extension, how many Canadians may be affected by lawful access powers. I then draw from publicly accessible sources to outline how authorities presently monitor social media. Next, I turn to documents that have been released through federal access to information laws to explicate how the government envisions the ‘nuts and bolts’ of their lawful access legislation. This post concludes with a brief discussion of the kind of oversight that is most appropriate for the powers that the government is seeking.

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Vancouver’s Human Flesh Search Engine

Photo by Richard Eriksson

I don’t like violence, vandalism, or other actions that generally cause destruction. Certainly there are cases where violent social dissent is a sad but important final step to fulfil a much needed social change (e.g. overthrowing a ruinous dictator, tipping the scale to defend or secure essential civil rights) but riotous behaviour following a hockey game lacks any legitimating force. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of game seven between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins a riot erupted in downtown Vancouver that caused significant harm to individuals and damage to the urban environment.

The riot itself is a sad event. What is similarly depressing is the subsequent mob mentally that has been cheered on by the social media community. Shortly after the riot, prominent local bloggers including Rebecca Bollwitt linked to social media websites and encouraged readers/visitors to upload their recordings and identify those caught on camera. In effect, Canadians were, and still are, being encouraged by their peers and social media ‘experts’ to use social media to locally instantiate a human flesh search engine (I will note that Bollwitt herself has since struck through her earliest endorsement of mob-championing). Its manifestation is seemingly being perceived by many (most?) social media users as a victory of the citizenry and inhabitants of Vancouver over individuals alleged to have committed crimes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have significant issues with this particular search engine. In this post, I’m going to first provide a brief recap of the recent events in Vancouver and then I’ll quickly explain the human flesh search engine (HFSE), both how it works and the harms it can cause. I’m going to conclude by doing two things: first, I’m going to suggest that Vancouver is presently driving a local HFSE and note the prospective harms that may befall those unfortunate enough to get caught within its maw. Second, I’m going to suggest why citizens are ill-suited to carry out investigations that depend on social media-based images and reports.

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