Sunday, November 16, 2014

Signing Up for Big Brother

Last Sunday evening, I took a plane trip from Houston's Intercontinental Airport to a moderately sized airport in Florida as part of my work with Cold Justice.  There were five of us traveling together and we had a lot of equipment, so one of the production assistants was meeting us at the airport with a van to take us to the hotel.

As we were waiting in the Passenger Pick-Up area, a heavy set African-American man drove up to pick up a couple who were apparently on the Houston flight with us.  I noticed him because he appeared to be uncomfortable parallel parking at the curb so he parked in a moving lane of traffic.  Leaving his car parked, he got out and helped the couple load into the car.  It was late at night and he wasn't inconveniencing anyone.  I just didn't have much else to observe while waiting for my ride.  Otherwise, I probably wouldn't have even noticed him.

When I got back to my hotel room after a long day of travel, I checked my Facebook account on my cell phone.  Although my phone had been on while I was at the airport, I didn't check Facebook while I was there.

As I browsed through all the updates that had occurred with my friends during the day, I had the usual pop-up of "Friend Suggestions" in my feed.

The first person suggested was the African-American man from the airport.  If I hadn't watched him for about five minutes straight, I wouldn't have recognized him.  His profile showed that we had one mutual friend -- a lady that I used to work with at the Harris County District Attorney's Office.

Now, keep in mind, I hadn't "checked in" at the airport.  I just happened to carry my phone through it.

I was mildly amazed at the friend suggestion, so I posted a brief recount of what had happened on Facebook (of course).  I got several responses, including my favorite: "Get some sleep, Murray."

Then one of my friends posted the following:
It has happened to me.  I was in a hotel in Nashville and overheard a conversation in the elevator.  The woman had a distinctive name.  When I got back to my room I noticed her name in my People You May Know section and sure enough it was the woman I had just seen in the elevator.  She was friends somehow with someone I am friends with and I am sure FB references your current IP address to look for people.  So, Voila!  Still very weird.
Now, in addition to the fact that my friend uses the term "voila!", I found this to be a little disturbing.  I'm not claiming that I read the fine print when signing up for Facebook's privacy settings agreement.
 
As any of my Facebook friends can tell you, I like sharing pictures of my kids and places where I go.  Yes, I know that it is much more prudent to share nothing personal on the internet, but what can I say?  I'm a Facebook junkie.  I'm used to ads popping up on my page that relate to a location where I checked in.  I'm okay that they seem to have picked up on my love of Star Wars, the Rolling Stones and the fact that I have small children at home.  I post about that all the time on my page.

I just never knew that Facebook appears to be watching me when I'm not logged in and that is a little spooky.

I'm not saying that Facebook is doing anything that isn't covered in that fine print, either.  I'm sure I signed up for them to monitor my location -- even when I'm not logged in.  The incident with the guy at the airport is pretty benign, but it doesn't take much imagination to think of a scenario that could be worse.  Facebook is inviting people into your life that you don't even know.

My point here isn't about the technicalities of Facebook and privacy.  I know that Scott Greenfield and Mark Bennett and others who follow technology and how it applies to the law are much more adept at expressing those details.

The reason I wrote this particular post is that our profession deals with privacy rights every day.  We fight searches and seizures under the mantle of Privacy as the main theme of many of our cases.  We complain of drones that spy and cell tower records and toll booths and facial recognition software and street corner cameras and legalized blood draws.

But the reality is that so much of that privacy we willingly give away to Facebook and other similar social media sites.

Food for thought.