Facebook's graph search is a creeper's dream

Who wants to search for "single women who live nearby and who are interested in men and like Getting Drunk"?

When Facebook launched its new Graph Search[(https://www.facebook.com/about/graphsearch) service, I was worried about the privacy implications, [arguing that "as the company has learned before, while it recognises a binary 'public/private' divide, most users don't think in such black-and-white terms."

And sure enough, a whole lot of information which users (surely) can't want public is now public. The Tumblr "Actual Facebook Graph Searches" collects, well, Actual Facebook Graph Searches.

So you can use Facebook Graph Search to find “Married people who like Prostitutes" (and then click on one button to get a list of their spouses), "Spouses of married people who like [cheat-on-your-partner dating site] Ashley Madison" or "Family members of people who live in China and like [the very very banned] Falun Gong".

Some of those — particularly the first one — will be "ironic" likes. Saying you like something on Facebook doesn't mean you actually like it, after all. But others won't; and it's hard to imagine the Chinese government particularly caring if someone expressed support for Falun Gong "ironically" or not.

And then there's the creeper potential (try "Single women who live nearby and who are interested in men and like Getting Drunk", for instance).

Part of it might be that the people who make the product have very different standards of privacy than the rest of us. Google's Eric Schmidt has a long-documented history of being, basically, a bit creepy, as does Mark Zuckerberg. And — maybe this is just me — even Facebook's own demonstration of how to use graph search is a little odd. Here's April Dembosky and Richard Waters writing for the Financial Times:

“My wife’s cousin recently moved here from India. She’s single,” he says, as he begins clicking through his Facebook profile. “I love to meddle in my family’s lives.”

Mr Stocky sets parameters for the search of his social network account. He’s looking for friends of his friends who are single men, who live in San Francisco and who are originally from India. A few more clicks and Mr Stocky has a list of romantic prospects for his wife’s cousin, culled from his own personal network.

The question left is whether this will be a storm in a teacup which will eventually rewire our normal expectations of privacy — as with the introduction of the News Feed on Facebook or the first forays into "social advertising" — or something which could damage Facebook, as the "Girls around me" app did with Foursquare and Google's initial attempts to leverage Gmail's network did with Google Buzz.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.