Engineering Ethics Blog: In Facebook We Trust


 

Consider what may seem to be an odd comparison:  Facebook and God.  For purposes of discussion, we will compare
Facebook to the traditional Judeo-Christian God of the Old and New Testaments.  And we will restrict the comparison primarily
to two matters:  communication and trust
(or faith).

 

Users of Facebook communicate with that entity by entering personal
information into Facebook’s system.  That
act of communication is accompanied by a certain level of trust, or faith.  Facebook promises to safeguard one’s
information and not to reveal it to anyone else without your permission.  Users can set up various levels of security
ranging from public (anyone can see it) to very private (only a selected list
of people can see it).  In entrusting
what is sometimes very personal data to Facebook, the user expects Facebook to safeguard
it in accordance with Facebook’s own promises.

 

According to most traditions, God will not tolerate being
used.  In the book of Luke, when the
Devil tempts Jesus to throw himself from the top of the temple to show that God
the Father will keep him from being injured, Jesus replies, “Thou shalt
not tempt (test) the Lord thy God.” In throwing himself off the temple,
Jesus would have been using God for the purposes of performing a stunt, and so
Jesus rightly rejected the Devil’s proposal.

 

But believers in God, those who trust in him, communicate with
God by praying.  God has made promises
regarding prayer, such as listening to those who call upon him, and in the
person of Jesus, he has said such radical things as “. . . whatsoever ye
shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the
Son.”  So those who trust in God
will certainly pray for things they want, but they also trust God that his
vastly superior knowledge and insight will lead him to do things differently
than our limited minds can conceive.  It
is part of wisdom to ask God for things we want, but not to tell him how to get
them done.

 

What do Facebook users expect from their communications with
Facebook?  Well, nobody I know puts stuff
on Facebook simply for the pleasure of seeing it show up there.  The hope is that other people will see it and
react in some way that one hopes is personally gratifying, or at least
useful.  (I’m ignoring the commercial and
institutional uses of Facebook for the moment, and concentrating on the
personal user only.)  And by and large,
most Facebook users see that happen enough to keep them using it, although most
people I know who have used Facebook have sworn off it for a while at least
once, usually during election season.

 

How about the trust angle of Facebook?  Yesterday (Saturday, Apr. 3), a hacker
published a list of some 500 million phone numbers and other personal data scraped
from Facebook.  News reports say that
anyone with rudimentary data skills can access this list.  Facebook says that the list was obtained
through a fault that they patched back in 2019, and the data is two years old.  Still, not a lot has changed in the lives of
many of those people since 2019, and the result is that everyone whose data is
on that list has another increment of concern to add to the dangers of online
existence. 

 

For most people, this particular breach will not have serious
consequences, except to underline the fact that what Facebook promises and what
Facebook delivers are two different things. 
This is not a surprise to some Australians who used Facebook to share
news items until Facebook decided last February that they couldn’t, as a move
in response to a proposal by the Australian government to make Facebook pay for
news items it puts on its own platforms. 

 

Both God and Facebook share the characteristic of inscrutability.  One never knows quite what either entity is
going to do.  The believer explains that
God is inscrutable to us because God knows everything and we don’t.  The Facebook user explains Facebook’s
inscrutability because Facebook is a large, physically distributed organization
whose inner workings and leading personalities are obscured from the general
public, and even governments have a hard time figuring out what Facebook is up
to. 

 

The comparison breaks down completely when we ask about the
moral character of each entity.  By
definition, God is the ultimate perfection of every virtue:  all-wise, all-knowing, and all-loving.  Facebook, on the other hand, is composed of
fallible human beings, and exists primarily to make money, while staying enough
within the law to operate profitably in the various jurisdictions around the
world where it has a presence, which is essentially everywhere on earth.  To expect perfection from Facebook, or any
other human organization, is to set oneself up for disappointment.

 

So while my sympathy goes out to everyone who uses Facebook (including
my wife, who called my attention to this matter) and is now that much more
concerned that their use will lead to unintended negative consequences, I can’t
say that I’m very surprised.  Facebook
data represents such a juicy target to hackers that occasional breaches are
well-nigh inevitable.  Facebook spends
enough money on data security to ensure that whatever breaches occur are infrequent
enough not to scare most of its users away, and spending a lot more than that
would probably cut into their profits severely. 
The only way to make Facebook perfectly unhackable would be if it had no
users at all, and that’s not going to happen any time soon.

 

It may seem that I’ve taken 900 words to say only that Facebook isn’t
God.  But even the obvious bears
repeating every now and then.  If we
listen only to what social media organizations tell us about themselves, it is
tempting to attribute God-like qualities to them:  omniscience and omnipotence, for example.  And when they inevitably mess up, such as
with the latest data breach, we rightly feel a sense of betrayal.  But the Psalmist advises us to “put not
your trust in princes,” even princes named Zuckerberg.  And that advice is still good today.

 

Sources:  Business Insider carried a story about the
Facebook phone-number data breach at https://www.businessinsider.com/stolen-data-of-533-million-facebook-users-leaked-online-2021-4.  The story of Jesus’s temptation by the Devil
is in Luke 4, and Psalm 146:3 advises us not to trust princes. 



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