Facebook

Millions of people turn to Facebook during times of crisis or disaster. See some of the latest activity on Facebook’s Global Disaster Relief page.
Facebook launched the page after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010. Facebook said the quake:

has underscored the Internet’s critical role in connecting the world’s population in times of tragedy. Facebook launched the Disaster Relief on Facebook Page where millions of people could educate themselves and find out how to help not only in Haiti but wherever disaster and misfortune may strike.
We want Disaster Relief on Facebook to serve as a collaborative resource for individuals, non-profits, governments and industry to raise awareness for those in need around the world.

A story on the Mashable website said Facebook “counted 4.5 million status updates from 3.8 million users across the world on March 11 that mentioned ‘Japan,’ ‘earthquake’ or ‘tsunami.’
An Australian researcher on March 18 “praised the increasing use of social media during disasters, saying there had been a ‘beautiful display of humanity’ on Facebook during recent catastrophes,” AFP reported.
Gwyneth Howell studied use of social media after the 2010 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. She told AFP:

That was the thing that struck me… this beautiful display of humanity and generosity and a sense of ‘I don’t know you but I want to be able to help.’ If that’s what Facebook is providing and social media is providing people with in times of terrible anguish, I think it’s a fantastic resource.

In 2008, a lawyer in Australia used Facebook to deliver divorce papers. A story posted on the divorce360 website said:

The Australian courts agree to allowed attorney Mark McCormack to serve foreclosure documents to Gordon Poyser and Carmel Corbo on facebook’s private e-mail after direct contact wasn’t possible. A week before Christmas, the couple is facing the loss of the home they’ve lived in for seven years.
McCormack, who maintains a page on facebook, got the idea of serving the foreclosure documents to the couple after finding Corbo’s personal page on the site. The court agreed to allow McCormack’s client, MKM Capital, to serve the legal paperwork via facebook, but asked that it be done through the network’s private e-mail so that it could be kept from the public.

An American attorney said he doesn’t think the practice will be allowed in the U.S. anytime soon. divorce.360 quoted New York lawyer Daniel Clement as saying:

We cannot even make service by fax or e-mail. In divorce, in particular, service must be personal service. In many cases, attorneys agree to accept service on behalf of the clients. But, if service cannot be made personally — i.e., handed to the defendant — you need a court order to make alternate service.

In 2010, police in Australia delivered court papers via Facebook.
In March 2010, a 15-year-old used Facebook to alert police after his mother screamed for help because her boyfriend was allegedly beating her. TwinCities.com quoted victim Kelly Heinl as saying that her son wrote:

Would somebody please call 911 — my mom’s boyfriend won’t let her use the phone. He accidentally attached smiley faces to the first one he sent, his mother said. Then he deleted the symbols and wrote, “This is serious.”

In March 2011, college student Nitesh Bhakta used Facebook to alert police during a home-invasion robbery.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported:
He quickly grabbed his laptop and slipped undetected into the attic as the intruders tied up his grandmother and sister and then ransacked the house.
Good thing his Wi-Fi signal reached that far, because he was able to summon help by typing one word into his Facebook status: “HELLLLLLLLP!” His best friend saw the message, called 911, and the police showed up to save the day.


The bad guys use Facebook, too.
A New Hampshire burglary ring caught with from $100,000 to $200,000 in stolen goods used social networking sites to pick its victims. WMUR news station quoted Nashua Police Capt. Ron Dickerson as saying:

Be careful of what you post on these social networking sites. We know for a fact that some of these players, some of these criminals, were looking on these sites and identifying their targets through these social networking sites.

In a statement to CNET, Facebook said the report wasn’t entirely accurate.
We’ve been in contact with the Nashua police, and they confirmed that they while they have an ongoing investigation and have already made a number of arrests, the only Facebook link was that one of those arrested had a Facebook friend who posted about leaving town in the near future (which is why they believe that home was targeted) and it had nothing to do with Facebook Places. The police confirmed that the other burglaries had nothing to do with Facebook altogether.
Some people warn against telling the world your location. A website called Please Rob Me says:

Don’t get us wrong, we love the whole location-aware thing. The information is very interesting and can be used to create some pretty awesome applications. However, the way in which people are stimulated to participate in sharing this information, is less awesome. Services like Foursquare allow you to fulfill some primeval urge to colonize the planet. A part of that is letting everyone know you own that specific spot. You get to tell where you are and if you’re there first, it’s yours. O, and of course there’s badges.. The danger is publicly telling people where you are. This is because it leaves one place you’re definitely not… home.

Social networking sites and other innovations threaten to erode our “locational privacy,” according to Andrew J. Blumberg and Peter Eckersley, who wrote a guide on the subject in August 2009 (Download guide here). They write about whether the following can invade your privacy:

  • Monthly transit swipe-cards
  • Electronic tolling devices (FastTrak, EZpass, congestion pricing)
  • Cellphones
  • Services telling you when your friends are nearby
  • Searches on your PDA for services and businesses near your current location
  • Free Wi-Fi with ads for businesses near the network access point you’re using
  • Electronic swipe cards for doors
  • Parking meters you can call to add money to, and which send you a text message when your time is running out

On March 16, “the Obama Administration announced its support for baseline consumer privacy legislation. This is the first time in history that the White House has called for a baseline consumer privacy bill,” according to the Center for Democracy and Technology.
The center said:

In a Senate hearing entitled The State of Online Consumer Privacy, Commerce Department Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information Lawrence Strickling acknowledged that the United States’ current patchwork of data privacy laws is insufficient and called for “[a]n overarching set of privacy principles on which consumers and businesses can rely could create a stronger foundation for consumer trust in the Internet.” Accordingly, he said, “The Administration urges Congress to enact a ‘consumer privacy bill of rights’ to provide baseline consumer data privacy protections.”
The Administration’s support is good news. It is the latest voice in a growing chorus of support for modern privacy protections online.

During the hearing, John D. “Jay” Rockefeller, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said:

Online privacy is a matter that concerns Americans everywhere. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 96 percent of working Americans use the Internet as part of their daily life. We are increasingly plugged-in and logged-on: working, playing, learning, shopping and socializing using computers, smart phones and tablets. And every time we use a device, such as an Android or iPad, to interact online, a machine—a computer server—somewhere in the world is recording this information.
Much of this information is used for targeted advertising purposes, but not all of it. According to press reports, data is being collected for other reasons as well. Data brokers such as RapLeaf, Inc. have created profiles on individuals, including their income and gender, and sold that information to third parties such as political campaigns and MySpace. Insurers are reportedly considering using data collected online as part of their assessment process. There is a multibillion dollar industry growing around the dissemination and sale of personal data picked up and packaged online.
Worse, even when Americans are aware this is happening, too often there is little they can do to stop it. I’ve been alarmed by reports that companies are figuring out new ways to limit and circumvent consumer choice online. For example, “Flash Cookies” are small data files used to facilitate multimedia viewing on websites. But some companies are using them for a different purpose altogether—to undermine users’ browser privacy settings. I recently wrote the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and asked them to investigate this practice.
I believe that consumers should be able to clearly understand and control what information is being collected and how this information is being used. If you’re shopping at the mall, you could stop someone from recording every store you visit, every book you peruse and every product you buy. Shouldn’t online shoppers—and online users—have these same protections, too?

Links:
ReclaimPrivacy.org
Wall Street Journal article about Facebook’s troubles with privacy issues
YourOpenBook (now shut down)

Public Radio International said:
One of the ways that people have tried to call attention to the misuse of personal information on Facebook is with the YourOpenBook.org. On the site, anyone can search for phrases like “I hate my boss” or “hammered” to see blatant disregard for personal privacy from real Facebook users. The site’s creator, Will Moffat told On the Media, “It was a half hour’s programming work, so you can be pretty sure that there are many other programmers with much worse intentions out there who are busy at work as we speak.”

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