Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 15, 2009

On Killing Facebook

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on December 15, 2009

I killed my Facebook account yesterday. Or at least disabled it.

I’d like to delete my account completely, but I can’t figure out how. Maybe that means I only redacted it.  Sort of.

Yesterday Jessica and Collin wrote about “redaction” as a metaphor for security.  I think Facebook could be another security metaphor.

As PDFs symbolize paper, Facebook suggests relationships. Homeland security folks are supposed to create relationships instead of building stovepipes.  Agencies are supposed to be be socially transparent and share with partners, stakeholders and a greatful public.   Social networks are poised to replace hierarchy.  Facebook — done correctly — could be the answer the homeland security enterprise is looking for.

It’s just not too clear what the question is.


PDFS are not paper, although with a printer they can pretend to be.  In a similar fashion, Facebook “friends” can not be “the masterpiece of nature” Emerson sought in a friend.  Perhaps as metaphor they come closer to being the “friends” Camus described who just “want … to be maintained in the good opinion they have of themselves.”

A social network does not help prevent terrorism by displaying pictures of a new decontamination truck.

(Social networks — at least the internet version — may even play a smaller role in creating terrorists than the current Nidal Hasan fueled analysis suggests.  But more about that in a few weeks.)


I’d been on Facebook for a few years.  I’ve been moderately serious about it for a year.  I joined because I believed (and still do) that social networks represent the next evolution of collaborative consciousness.  And I think that kind of lived awareness can benefit homeland security.  It’s a hypothesis that makes sense to me.

I wanted to learn what a virtual network space could mean in practice.   I tried MySpace and Facebook, and without a lot of thought, Facebook became my default application.  I still believe in social networks, but Facebook doesn’t cut it for me any more.  I think relying on a “service” like Facebook just because it is available may ultimately do more to harm the growth of effective social networks in homeland security than it does to help.

I have no web-based alternative.  Maybe Microsoft’s Vine.  Maybe Google’s Wave.  Maybe something that is slowly emerging from the semi-transparent mind of a 13 year old.  Or, God forbid, maybe the alternative is talking to people face-to-face.


Facebook’s ever changing privacy policy was the tipping point for me.  I thought I used to know what the policy was.  Then a news article a few weeks ago demonstrated to me that I did not know what the policy was.  Then there was (what turned out to be erroneous) concern about potential impact of Facebook on security clearances.

Facebook’s new policy is supposed to allow one to set up privacy levels for each message.  It is supposed to be intuitive.  I found Facebook’s explanation about their new privacy policy slightly to the dense side of obscure.

And apparently Facebook owns everything that anyone puts on their account and has eternal rights to make T-Shirts out of any message you send.  Or something like that.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Brad Stone (or at least someone who calls himself that)  described how Facebook accounts are being hacked to send messages “telling [your] co-workers and loved ones how to raise their I.Q.’s or make money instantly, or urging them to watch an awesome new video in which they star.”

So enough for me.  For awhile anyway.  I am content to wait for the Millennials to work out the bugs in Facebook or whatever it evolves into. [For one recent study describing how this is going, see “Use of Social Networking by Undergraduate Psychology Majors.“]


When I finally struck the dagger into the inner sanctum of my Facebook account, Facebook asked me — like a pop up version of Kubrick’s HAL in 2001 Space Odyssey,

“Why are you leaving?”

“It’s just not working out,” I lied.

“Is it our privacy policy?” Facebook asked.

“No,” I answered.

“Am I too difficult to use?”


“Then why are you leaving?  I need to know.”

“It’s other” I said, checking off the Other box.

“Other’s not good enough,” Facebook persisted.  “I need to know the specific reason.”

I’d been in relationships like this before.  I knew what to do.

“It’s not you.  It’s me,” I explained

“Ok,” Facebook said.  “But are you sure you want to leave?  Your 348 friends will miss you.”

“Yes,” I said, “I’m sure.”

“I’ll deactivate you,” Facebook said with a watery-eyed reluctance in its by now quivering bytes. “But I’ll leave your account here.  And you can comeback whenever you want.  It will be like you never left.”

I signed out of my Facebook account for the last time.  Free of it.

A few hours later I got an email from an old Air Force buddy who found me last spring after 40 years:

“Hey Chris,” he wrote, “I’m really hurt, man.  You de-friended me on Facebook.”

“OMG!”  I thought.  “Do I now have to write emails to the other 347 people on my friends list telling them it’s not about them; it’s me?”

I’ll ask my Twitter followers.  They’ll know what I should do.

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 15, 2009 @ 6:16 am

Dear Chris:

At the dawn of social networking, my children (then tweens, now twenty-somethings) absolutely forbade my participation in MySpace and then Facebook. I have created a Linked-in profile, but it is little more than an online billboard.

Elinor Ostrom and others of her ilk point toward enticing empirical evidence for the power of participation, collaboration, and deliberation as the key components of “real” social networking.

Facebook is too often just participation (and barely that). Collaboration — working together — is entirely possible on the net, but most social networking sites are not designed as work-spaces. Without collaboration — where we get to know each other in very grounded, practical ways — it is almost impossible to meaningfully and effectively deliberate together.

Until we share enough personal history and common concern (and the prospect of a shared future) to deliberate together, what really is the purpose of social networking? Probably nothing more than what Camus suggests (love that quote).

Your friend,


Please see:

Trust and Reciprocity by Ostrom and Walker.

Understanding Institutional Diversity by Ostrom.

Polycentric Systems as One Approach for Solving Collective-action Problems by Ostrom.

Forthcoming in 2010 is Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice by Ostrom, Janssen, and Poteete.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

December 15, 2009 @ 9:26 am

As is often the case, Facebook, My Space, et al while valuable in context, often does not reach the threshold of tools for meaningful collaboration. What was started in a dorm room in Cambridge, Massachusetts became this very nice reunion page and a means of sound bite communication amongst friends. While there is a certain utility in accumulating old friends, colleagues and their networks, the degrees of separation one would hope to engage does not materialize.

To Chris’ point; having the malleable privacy policy constantly shift under ones feet is a bit disconcerting. Also, his experience, what amounted to an intellectual experiment, failed to meet his needs, in terms of return on investment. It’s simply not an effective collaboration tool. Facebook’s utility does serve to connect, that is for certain…but it does not, in my experience, lend itself to creation, or discovery; instead, its reunification. No friend in my list has been a serendipitous discovery or collaborative add on. Quite frankly, it’s a very traditional, linear function, re connecting with old friends and colleagues and a means of quasi personal connection with my past.

While there has been some value in social networking (Iranian election comes to mind) by and large, the degree of critical interaction being sought by utilizing Facebook is somewhat wanting. Nevertheless, there is a bell shape quality to user interest and fascination with the process and while certainly not perfect, I believe this platform will evolve into permeations and generations of product capable of doing more analytical tasks. What have been deemed “traditional” networks still hold great value because the initial inquiry or starting point is focused and projected to another node(s)…If I have a question for Chris, I ask Chris…where he gets the answer is unbeknownst to me, but I am relatively certain it gets pushed to a tangent connection, and so on. So the initial connection is linear, but the solution matrix is multi dimensional.

I think that’s Chris’ desired endstate is a simple question; what does this virtual network provide? Is it a wisdom of Crowd’s scenario or simply a bunch of previous relationships with an initial buzz on reconnection that than lie dormant? I am sure time will tell and as our inter-connectedness ebbs and flows, we’ll find that the social network has great utility. I think we’ll also find that traditional “ lateral nepotistic styled” ones will gain value and there will be a synergy gained when they can both merge to a more effective communication media.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 15, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

WOW! GREAT POST AND COMMENTS! Not sure how social media are/is defined but guessing FACEBOOK is within any definition. And to celebrate just went to wireless/broadband after over a decade of AOL dial up. Had to have a tower built near me to allow that in my otherwise offgrid area. Northern Neck of VA!

The brilliant mathematician Von Neuman if memory is correct once published a book of short stories relating to mathematics but involving essentially SCI-FI. One story was about an improbably built subway track that was actually a MOEBIUS (sic) Strip and subway traveled infinitely but got nowhere. Another about a future in which the cheap but massive production of weaponary by one nation-state overcame another that constantly strived for cutting edge technology. Perhaps the V-weapons of WWII prompted that. But the story I remember the best was how information saturation led finally to a system that each day caused the government to issue one “word” eliminating all MSM and other non-governmental communications. Based on the notion that the human brain was being overloaded and in particular by non-relevant info, the one word led to all that could be imagined by those suffering info overload. What is the quality of the FACEBOOK connection in reality or is it just another time-consuming, fake sop to the fact that most intelligent people recognize that at some level networking is survival? Dean Ornish, M.D., published a book on friends and developing friendships on the basis that friendships meant survival. I have given away several copies (usually purchased used at the now diminishing numbers of used book stores) to friends who I felt were becoming social isolates and therefore in danger. Not sure they welcomed the gift. So here is my question? Do the social media really help with the issues of anonmity and social isolation that has been identified by the various disciplines since the advent of the industrial age? Or are they just some sort of short hand way to pretend we are NOT socially isolated and therefor don’t have to be totally self-reliant? Notice this works back into Phil Palin’s resiliency series. Are a bundle of sticks bound together stronger than a single stick? Yet many businesses and governmental programs, functions and activities and even some disciplines are designed to exploit the interstial cracks in the life of what are definitely social animals–US! Thanks again for the post and comment. And by the way most of the commentary on vaccinations and current PANFLU efforts fail to describe, discuss or understand, that vaccines in part are designed to improve “herd immunity” not to protect certain sectors of the population. Protecting the “herd” gets the most bang for the buck in a pandemic.

Comment by Clinton J. Andersen

December 16, 2009 @ 1:30 am

BRAVO Chris, Bravo. I love how you transcribed your shutdown process with Facebook. I wish I had done the same as I believe that when I shut down my account I fell under a different Facebook policy and thus my conversation was more like:


Are you sure you want to temporarily shut down your account?

No, not temporarily… permanently.

Sorry, no permanent changes here. Now, are you sure you want to temporarily shut down your account?

Whatever. Just close already.

You do realize that I know who your friends are?


I know where they live…

Ok Hal, you’re starting to creep me out.

…and I know where you live… and work.

You win. Please keep my account open.

Too late.


:-| My only saving grace is that Facebook is not owned by Google because then I would probably have 3 Facebook accounts just to apologize.

In all seriousness, I recently attended an ESRI Fire/EMS user group class and learned how frustrated those folks are with social networks. They see the benefit in them but they get overwhelmed real quick when 140,000 people send them the same information that a crash has occurred at the corner of 1st and Armistad. Not only that, but a lot of the information that they receive via social networks leaves them running around much like a public plea by a police department on the local t.v. where they offer a reward for catching a bad guy. 95% of the leads are crap and the same goes for social networking.

There’s still plenty of work to do. We are caught up in this “living for the moment” and having to report everything instantaneously instead of focusing on gathering the right information, even if it means taking 5 more minutes to verify. CNN has a whole page dedicated to iReporters but states that they make no verification to the accuracy of the information. But who really pays attention to that?

I think it boils down to a leadership issue. If a leader believes that they have a method to the madness and can make the social network work for them, then by all means go for it. But a leader should not be hopping on the bandwagon because everybody else is doing it and they don’t want to justify why it’s not right for them. Especially when it seems that the social network lifespan is about 3 years (http://www.eocmag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=80:is-social-networking-worth-the-time&catid=37:november-2009&Itemid=57). By the time it catches on in the public safety sector it is already plateauing. I purport that in 10 years those agencies trying to keep up with social networking will have 10 different accounts to keep up with just to try to reach out to as many people as they possibly can.

Anyways, I had some other thoughts but realize this has gone on way too long. Great post. I’m glad I’m not alone shutting down my account (as much as possible) in this social networking bandwagon frenzy.

Comment by Nick Catrantzos

December 17, 2009 @ 1:17 am

This Facebook disappointment recalls an Ambrose Bierce observation that the telephone abrogates the advantage of keeping a disagreeable person at a distance.

Technical means of transmitting and receiving messages may be multiplying, but actual communication seems to remain more or less constant. One of my subordinates marked this trend in his teenagers a few years ago when he saw that they were so enthralled with texting each other that they were no longer using the cell phones in their family to actually talk to anyone. When it got to the point of watching them texting at the dinner table in lieu of asking each other to pass the side dishes, he finally drew the line.

Twitter seems useful episodically and ephemerally, if one needs to broadcast information to a receptive circle of worthies for a particular event or limited duration. Demonstrators in Iran and underfunded surveillance teams may find it particularly handy. Yet can anyone but a narcissist or aspiring actor use it regularly without losing interest? It recalls some ham radio operators, bless them, who go to great lengths to establish radio communications with like-minded strangers only to end up with absolutely nothing to say and engaging in endless, rambling inanities over the air waves.

LinkedIn looks like a good way to resuscitate the old fashioned letter of introduction when seeking a position or business-related referral. I have one friend who found a job that way. For me, it seems a practical way to capture recommendations from old bosses and colleagues while the wind still whistles through their lungs or while they can still remember who one is and what he did of any consequence.

Facebook, though, hasn’t seemed to offer lasting value. I’m told it is a more fluid means of tethering one’s friends to one’s life, as LinkedIn is supposed to be for sustaining work-related connections. But isn’t that the role of visits, telephone calls, e-mail, and shared interests that might even generate the occasional letter or post card as well? In addition to Facebook’s variable privacy policy, perhaps another Achilles’ heel is that mortals are not necessarily wired for myriad connection. With the exception of the occasional Tipping Point maven, most of us are tribal. We comfortably manage to spark and sustain a finite number of acquaintances and fewer friendships. Once we reach our individual quota, say 20 or 30, for example, then every addition necessitates a subtraction. Thus one friend loses touch and a new one takes his or her place in our personal tribe. Perhaps by introducing artificially high numbers of connections and instant intimacy, sites such as Facebook are laying waste to this natural order of things. If so, as they begin to lose devotees, they will have to struggle to survive. In Internet businesses where the service is ostensibly free, that means declining market share and lower revenues from product extensions or advertising. This, in turn, tends to encourage the developers to find other ways to “monetize” the website, hence the evil turn Chris anticipates of selling anything on file to T-shirt makers … or worse.

Thanks to all for the warning.

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