Friday, August 10, 2012

Returning to Facebook: A thought experiment

This tweet got me thinking.

I've kind of been missing Facebook. Not the service itself, but some of the people on it who I didn't keep in touch with any other way. I miss the social bit, not the network (although this post by maciej makes a strong case that social networks are neither).

I'd quite like to keep up with some of those people again, but don't have any real desire to open up my life to Facebook's increasingly terrifying database of People And Everything That They Do. So I've been trying to figure out how I would rejoin Facebook, if the temptation does eventually reach a point where I cave in.

I don't want to just re-activate my old account (I assume it still exists, even though I told Facebook to delete it a year ago) primarily so they can't link up any old data about me. I want them to have as little (useful) information about me as I can provide, so a new account entirely is required.

(I realise this post is going to go a bit Richard Stallman in places, for which I can only apologise.)

Firstly, there's the signup process.

I don't want Facebook to have my real email address (and I'd used it for my previous Facebook account anyway), so I'd have to set up a new one. Not difficult; there are dozens (if not hundreds) of free email providers, and I'm kind of interested in trying out Microsoft's new(ish) Outlook mailbox anyway.

A slightly trickier section is the phone number - Facebook now requires you to provide a mobile phone number when you sign up for an account. I assume this has to be unique, so I can't just re-use the number I had on my original account, or the number I used on my work Facebook account (I need this for testing, and since it uses my work email address I don't want to try and use it for personal stuff). In this instance, picking up a cheap Pay&Go SIM won't be prohibitively expensive - and while I'm not pleased with the idea of having to pay anything to use Facebook, it's probably worth it for keeping my real details away from their servers.

The other major way Facebook can track your information is by watching what other sites you visit - even if you're not logged into Facebook. The easiest solution to this, that I can see, is to only use Facebook in a different browser than everything else, or to use Private Browsing. Chrome has an "Incognito mode" that you can open which uses a different cache from your main browsing session, and which is disposed of when you close the window. This means you've got to re-login to every site if you're Incognito, but it also means anything you do Incognito can't escape to your main browser history. I already do this with my work Facebook account, so adopting this strategy for a personal one wouldn't be a new habit to learn.

Avoiding linking up my Facebook account to other services seems like a no-brainer, and although I'll happily use my Twitter account as an authenticator for blog comments and the like, there's something about the way Facebook collects, stores and uses the data its users provide that makes me much more wary about giving them that data in the first place.

Even with those precautions, I'll have to give this a lot more thought. There are bound to be things I've over looked or haven't thought of, but as an initial to-do list for opening a Facebook account I think this should protect me pretty well if I cave in and re-join Zuckerberg's Monolith.

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