The fallacy of Facebook privacy

Natalie Blanchard is either the most naïve Facebook user in the history of the social networking service, or an incredibly unlucky woman who just can't seem to get back on her feet. Whatever title she ends up wearing, she's quickly becoming the poster child for caution in the social media age. Unless you belong to a mysterious sect that specifically bans any form of online activity, either learn her difficult lesson or risk suffering a similar fate.

The resident of Bromont, Quebec, Canada suffers from severe depression and has been on long-term disability leave from her job at IBM for over a year-and-a-half. She had been receiving benefits from her company's insurer, Manulife, until earlier this fall when the checks suddenly stopped coming. When she called her insurance agent to find out why, she was told the company had looked up her supposedly private Facebook account, and found pictures of her posing with Chippendale dancers at a bar, attending a birthday party, and enjoying a beach vacation.

For its part, Manulife won't comment specifically about the Blanchard case. While the company has said it "would not deny or terminate a valid claim solely based on information published on Web sites such as Facebook," it did confirm that it does check into the Facebook accounts of its clients. And given Facebook's architecture, even a private account will leak information like photos and status updates to anyone with even a basic ability to navigate the service. Despite Facebook's recent efforts to shore up its privacy policies and procedures, its online definition and application of the term still differs greatly from how we learned it as kids.

Privacy? What privacy?

This comes too late to help Blanchard, of course, who couldn't understand how her insurance overlords got a hold of her supposedly locked down postings. This was her first, last, and only mistake. Because nothing is ever private on the Internet. And at the risk of kicking an unfortunate soul when she's already down, if you really wanted to keep something to yourself, you wouldn't put it online -- in any form -- in the first place.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)We participate in social media specifically because we want to share slices of our respective life stories with those around us. Some of us also want to grow that audience, hence the relentless pressure to amass more online "friends" and followers. These tools have turned many of us into prolific broadcasters. And like any broadcast, where what's sent out is often consumed by a different audience than the originally intended one, there's always a risk, however small, of the message landing wrong. In Blanchard's case, not only did the photographic message spread further than intended, but it also prompted her insurer to believe she was no longer suffering from depression and could head back to work.

Whether she returns to her office or stays home will now likely be decided in court. Blanchard has filed a $275,000 civil suit against the insurer, and the first hearing is scheduled for Quebec Superior Court on December 8. However this particular case plays out, Facebookers, Twitterers, MySpacers, and bloggers everywhere now have another high-profile example of someone who, for whatever reason, failed to appreciate the impact her online activities would have on her real life.

In many respects, it's easy to feel sorry for Ms. Blanchard in her rejection of the insurer's rejection of her. She feels wronged by the company. She feels the company mistakenly assumes the pictures its investigators saw were clear evidence of her recovery. She claims the clubhopping, the partying, and the prancing around on the beach were all recommended by her doctor -- tonics for a depressed soul. She claimed that "in the moment" she felt fine, but leading up to and following the moments when those pictures were taken, she remained her depressed self.

The futility of picking a winner

It's hard to tell who's right and who's wrong in a case like this. And in virtually all respects, it simply doesn't matter. Manulife drew its own conclusions based on the evidence available to it through social media. Whether it's justified or not is almost irrelevant. Merely the whiff of impropriety in a social media posting is often enough to prompt an employer, an insurer, or some other class of protagonist to pull the plug.

As we lead more of our lives online, the number of incidents like this will only skyrocket. Things like due process and presumption of innocence will all be tossed out the window as large organizations become more comfortable with their newfound power over employees and other small-potatoes stakeholders. HR departments now routinely Google job applicants and dig into their activities on popular social media sites to get a better picture of them than any resume or cover letter could ever provide. You can say what you want in your application package, the thinking goes, but what you do on your own time speaks volumes about the kind of person you really are...and whether you'll even get to that coveted first interview. The scrutiny doesn't end when you get the job, either, as our desire to hang it all out for all to see has tilted the playing field in favor of those who employ us.

I'd like to assume the rules for staying under the radar in this increasingly open, privacy-free environment are straightforward and easily understood. I'd also like to assume that there's an all-encompassing list of do's and don'ts out there that we can use as a guide for this Byzantine new order. But we all know where assumptions ultimately lead us, and in any event, the environment is changing too quickly for any one solution to ever stick long enough to be useful.

The sad truth is this: There's no way to ensure every person who reads every one of our online activities will absorb the tone of the message exactly as we originally intended. We could, of course, unplug completely. But that's an alternative that carries risks of its own, most of which are significantly worse than running afoul of some pencil-pushing insurance industry investigator.


Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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