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When You’re Tired of Being Mad at Facebook, Remember the NSA

·Contributing Editor

(Photo: AFP)

Two big privacy stories popped up recently. One involved a social network slightly changing how it presents data shared by some of its members. The other involved a secret government agency extracting and keeping private data about hundreds of thousands of people who were not targets of its investigations.

The news of Facebook’s experiment in “emotional contagion” dominated the news. The Washington Post’s frightening story on the latest Edward Snowden-sourced revelation of the National Security Agency’s data-hoarding habits did not get quite the same attention.

Twitter statistics from Topsy Labs show discussions of “Facebook experiment” peaking far higher (23,767 tweets on June 29) than those of “NSA data” (7,092 on July 5). Only if you step back to the generic searches “Facebook” and “NSA” does the agency top the conversation — in a way that bumps up only slightly after the Post’s disclosures.

News coverage followed suit. There were about seven times as many Google News hits on Monday afternoon for “Facebook experiment” than there were for ”NSA data” when that story broke.

This is not right.

The NSA is a bigger deal than Facebook
Let’s review the differences between the data collection practices of Facebook and the NSA.

• For Facebook to get your data, you or your friends have to provide it voluntarily. The NSA, on the other hand, isn’t supposed to collect data at all from Americans, but its dragnet surveillance — until recently that included information flowing between overseas data centers of such U.S. firms as Google and Yahoo — has often swept up details from U.S. citizens.

• Facebook’s privacy policy may change often but is publicly documented, and a 20-year settlement with the Federal Trade Commission requires that it not loosen those settings without your permission. At the NSA, even its budget is a secret, and it’s won sweeping latitude from a compliant court that kept its own rulings classified.

• You can delete your Facebook account, and the data stored with it will vanish, too. Good luck just asking the NSA if it has data about you; ProPublica reporter Jeff Larson sent in a Freedom of Information Act request and got a we-can’t-say reply, as did a friend who tried the same tactic.

This weekend’s news about the NSA represents the most troubling disclosures since, well, last week’s report that searching for information about such privacy tools as Tor routers can put you under the security agency’s magnifying glass

The problem isn’t so much that the NSA’s searches collected information from innocent bystanders under loose rules — the Post’s report suggests the NSA could see you as possibly foreign and therefore snooping-eligible if you used a proxy server to watch the World Cup — but that it made no attempt to dump that data after determining that it was irrelevant.

And then it placed so little control over that information that a contract employee could take an archive with him (something the NSA suggested was inconceivable) and hand it to a newspaper. I hope my former employer (I used to work at the Washington Post) is taking exceptional care to protect this personal data. 

Why did the Facebook experiment strike such a chord?
On the other hand, I see fair reasons why the Facebook study could upset so many people.

For one, Facebook is much more visible. It’s in our lives everywhere, not hidden.

And complaints over Facebook futzing with the News Feed have been a staple of Facebook comments for years. How it interprets your clicks and those of friends to determine what shows up in your feed remains a mystery. The idea that this selection would be part of a researcher’s game plugged into an existing theory.

But the reaction to this story was still overblown.

There are real issues of ethics and informed consent here — for a nuanced discussion, see this post by Danah Boyd, a researcher with Microsoft, New York University, and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who’s long been a critic of the social network. 

But Facebook briefly toying with the feelings of a tiny subset of its members in 2012 is a First World problem compared with the abuse Facebook’s members heap on one another every day. (If only people weren’t such jerks online.)

News sites like Facebook stories
I can’t write this post as if news organizations are detached observers with no connection to the development of a story. Posts about Facebook may not get Apple-rumor-level readership, but they do tend to get clicks by the truckload.

And even the senators charged with overseeing the NSA didn’t seem too eager on Monday to read the latest coverage of that agency’s exploits.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.