Jim Fleming: But first, have you posted any personal information online lately? Maybe a photo of yourself enjoying a beer. Maybe a Match.com profile in which you didn't mention that you have kids. May seem harmless, but what we post online can be found by employers, schools, and lawyers, and the results can be disastrous. People have lost jobs and even custody of children when an unwise post made it into the wrong hands. Lori Andrews is the author of "I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy." In her book she describes Facebook as Facebook Nation. She tells Anne Strainchamps why.
Lori Andrews: Well, it actually has a population that would make it the third largest nation in the world after China and India. And yet, if you think about it, what are its rules? It has an economy. It actually has Facebook money, it has citizens, it has relationships with other nations. And yet, instead of having a constitution, it has rules that switch at a moment's notice. So Facebook used to promise that everything you did would be private. Then in 2009 it decided to make your friends public, and that had repercussions around the world. There were U.S critics of Tehran who had Facebook pages where they had friended friends and relatives in Iran, and when their friends' pictures and names became public, those friends were picked up in Iran by the police, beat up, and so forth. So rules switch with respect to Facebook and people don't know how what they post might actually come back to haunt them.
Anne Strainchamps: So are you saying that thinking of Facebook as a nation and realuizing that we all, to a greater or lesser extent, have become citizens of this Facebook Nation, is a way of beginning to think more critically of the structures and rules, or lack of rules, that govern our behavior in Facebook Nation?
Andrews: Yes, there are really important rules that you'd have in any other setting, and so if you think of my offline self as being regulated by national laws, why not have regulations for my online self, so certain protections that I have. Everybody's familiar with how health information is protected when it's in the hands of doctors or in the hands of hospitals. They can't just disclose and so forth. But if I say on Facebook, even on my private page of Facebook, that I'm thinking of getting pregnant, or if I like the American Cancer SOciety, an employer who would otherwise hire me might not, based on the idea that I could charge a lot to their health insurance. So things that are forbidden, askng a potential employee if she's planning to get pregnant or if cancer runs in her family, are not protected online. So thinking about Facebook as a nation is a way to start people thinking and demanding their rights online.
Strainchamps: So basically you're saying that unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Facebook doesn't stay in Facebook.
Andrews: Absolutely not, and so 75% of employers now require their human resource people to check your online presence before offering you a job. And 24% of employers or more say that they've turned down people for having a drink in their hand on their Facebook photo, even an innocent wine glass at a wedding, for someone who is over 21. I think of poor Ashley Payne. She was a high school teacher, 24 years old. On summer vacation she went to Ireland. She posted, as many young people do on Facebook, 700 photos of her vacation. In ten of them she had wine or beer in her hand, including on the tour of the Guinness factory. And they're very, very innocent photos. She's not drunk at all, she's toasting someone, she's on this tour. Lost her job as a result of it, even though as a high school teacher she hadn't friended any students or any parents of student where they might have claimed she was setting a bad example. So here is something that, perfectly legal behavior gets her into trouble.
Strainchamps: So that just seems wrong. Did that case or do cases like it go to courts? What have the courts decided?
Andrews: Courts have not caught up with social networks. And so courts have said you have no right to privacy in anything you post. In fact a New York judge said even your email should be thought of like a postcard, that you have no privacy rights over them and that can be made public. Now think about that for a moment. I'm a lawyer, I might email clients. I certainly don't want that public. I think there's an attorney-client privilege I don't want to lose, and I think we should equally be thought to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in what we do on the web since now we're disclosing there even more private information than we'd ever before talked about to third parties. People talk about, on a typical Facebook page, their political preferences, their sexual preferences. In fact, Richard Power, a security analyst, said think about if the government tried to get that sort of very, very intimate information, everything you've ever bought, everything you believe in. He said it would take money, it would take lawyers, it might even take guns, but we freely give it. And this is fascinating, 93% of the time when the government asks Google for our private information, Google turns it over.
Strainchamps: On the other hand, isn't this what privacy settings are for? Can't people just adjust their privacy settings and keep all that stuff private?
Andrews: On social networks like Facebook, you didn't used to have privacy settings. It was only when they started to get Google envy and Google Plus came out with abilities to restrict who you showed things to that Facebook put privacy settings in. But now, employers in Maryland and Montana have gotten sneaky and they've started asking people for their passwords to Facebook. I was recently at a signing ceremony with Governor Pat Quinn in Illinois, he asked me to speak there, because Illinois and Maryland have passed laws now saying it is illegal for your employer to ask for your social network password.
Strainchamps: Wow. What happens if an employee in one of those states refuses, says no, my social network is private, you can't see it.
Andrews: Are you really going to get the job then? The idea is you're hiding something. See, I'm less worried about that almost than coercion. How can I say no, really, if I know there are fifty people in competition for the job in a tough market. There's another whole layer to this, beyond what we post. Data aggregators collect information about what we've done on the web, not just what we've posted on social networks, but what we've searched for in internet searches, what web sites we've been to, how much time we spent on the page. And there are a variety of companies, there's one called Axion, that for 96% of Americans has 1,500 pieces of information, including what pharmaceuticals you take and so forth.
Strainchamps: Wait, wait, wait. You mean, for you and for me, this company probably has 1,500 pieces of information about each of us?
Andrews: Yes, and so how it gets it is you visit a website and that website puts web beacons, cookies, other sort of tracking mechanisms that then follow you all over the web. It is astonishing. Because we might think, okay, I can be careful, I don't need to put up those drunken hot tub photos, I don't need to like strange biker gangs, I can clean up my own Facebook page in a way.
Strainchamps: Be careful not to dis my employer on my Facebook page.
Andrews: Yeah. But what about the fact that in addition to writing non-fiction about social networks, I write mystery books. So my Google searches, I actually invented a date rape drug for one book and I blew up the White House in another one. Well, if that is readily available to people as it is through these cookies, whole criminal cases have been based on Google searches that people have done.
Strainchamps: You're kidding. For example?
Andrews: Say, my sister, I love my sister, but she disappears. Maybe she's gone off to start a new life. But if I've looked at the depth of a nearby lake, that's the sort of thing that they consider problematic or if I've done searches for different types of weapons, which I have for my mysteries. I love writing books, I love dictionary.com. It outs 233 tracking mechanisms on my computer.
Strainchamps: Just from the words you've looked up in the dictionary?
Andrews: From before even that, just going to the website. So websites work like that. Sometimes it's to your advantage. So Amazon.com will have a tracking mechanism that will remember your credit card if you want, or remember that you like mysteries, or that you love my recent book, and that sort of thing, and so to your advantage. But other sites just go on and aggregate based on the words that you've used in an email, based on the words that you've used in a web search. So say I write to my sister who, I've already told you, I adore, and I say I'm thinking of getting a divorce, through my gmail account. That's actually scanned and ads are based on that, and that information is collected as a data point about me. Or if I go on a web site and look up old guitars. So I've done those two things. Now I go on a credit card site, I will be offered a less good credit card, if I'm offered any credit card at all, based on the fact that people who are likely to get a divorce are less likely to pay off their credit card bills, and people who are in garage rock bands don't have that much money.
Strainchamps: How have people's social network posts entered the courtroom? To what extent are posts on Facebook actually used in trials as evidence?
Andrews: It's now an astonishingly high percentage of family law cases, and I particularly see it used against women. If you've posted a sexy picture, you could lose custody of your child in a case. Or for men, if they've ever on Match.com said they don't have children in any setting, when they actually do. They can lose custody. That's just one example where it's really come up in a very big way. A woman lost custody of her young teen daughter to the dad because of something sexy the teen daughter had posted. Now you know she was just as likely to have posted it if she was in the dad's house. Judges are taking what's happening on social networks at a sort of face value that I don't think they should.
Strainchamps: You've come up with at least one step toward a solution, something you call the Social Network Constitution. Could you just quickly give us an overview of what the Social Network Constitution is?
Andrews: Sure. Well, it's the 225th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, and I've suggested we need a Social Network Constitution to make sure our online rights are in line with our offline rights. And one thing that interests me is that surprisingly younger people actually do care about privacy. The Pew polls, the Harris Center for Internet and Society, has found that people 18 to 30 actually have higher privacy concerns, 71% for the younger groups as opposed to 56% overall. So as opposed to privacy being dead, as some of the social network founders have said, I think it is very much alive and now we just have to make sure that we protect it.
Fleming: Lori Andrews is the author of "I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy." She spoke with Anne Strainchamps.