Is the writing on the wall for Facebook?

Has the Facebook fad seen its day?

We’ve seen it happen to Myspace, and then Bebo; but now Facebook faces being cast off into the pile of unwanted internet has-beens. Recent statistics suggest that the social networking giant has lost nearly a million users in the past month. SocialBakers, a Czech social media statistics company, monitors the activity and membership levels around the globe, and its latest figures illustrate that the United Kingdom has seen the most dramatic drop of all over the past month, with 2.88 per cent of its users backing out.

These statistics come almost simultaneously with Facebook launching their latest venture, Graph Search, an advanced search engine enabling searches within a user’s network. Could we be witnessing Mark Zuckerberg clutching at straws in an attempt to re-boost their dwindling monopoly?

Of course not! (say Facebook). In fact, they’re not worried about declining numbers at all. A spokesperson said,

We are very pleased with our growth and with the way people are engaged with Facebook – more than 50 per cent of our active users log on to Facebook in any given day.

Great stuff, but it still doesn’t explain why 946,120 users in their sixth most popular territory have apparently abandoned them in the past month alone. I bet I could hazard some guesses.

It might be to do with the lull in social networking activity that is quite common to the festive period. Christmas is, after all, about spending time with those you love, not talking to them on Facebook Chat. But disregarding December statistics, over 1 per cent of British Facebook users have still ditched the site throughout January, totalling a hefty loss of nearly 350,000 members in just two weeks.

Or perhaps it’s the concept that people are ready to move on from. 2013 might be the year people finally realise that stockpiling "friends" by the thousands is simply not necessary. A recent study by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has found that:

The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.

But with Facebook allowing for up to 5,000 friends, does this indicate that its ethos could be all wrong for today’s society?

There has been a generational transition since the beginning of Facebook. Most of those using it when it first began in 2004 were students, but almost a decade later this prime audience are professional adults and may not consider it a social necessity anymore. Perhaps the conformity issues which drove everyone on to social networks might drive them off as well: let’s all agree to not-conform!

The introduction of other social networks is also an obvious detriment. Old, reliable Facebook is now being discarded in favour of new, younger models. The public are being seduced by the allure of Twitter’s sleek 140-character-limit and its enviably close relationship with A-list celebrities; and users just can’t resist the enticing charm of Linked In, which promises to unlock the secrets to career progression and therefore eternal happiness.

But the most likely cause of this harsh abandonment? It’s that old chestnut, rights. Rights to property; rights to privacy. Facebook-owned Instagram caused a furore when it attempted to change its terms and conditions to allow for its ownership of subscribers’ photos. They may have backed down a day later, but they certainly lost some users and a whole lot of trust in the process.

Ned RocknRoll has been a victim of Facebook privacy rights. Photos from a party years ago have emerged and are now argued to be a possession of the public. Debates like this mean that the population has increasingly been reminded of the immeasurable information Facebook possesses: what you ate for breakfast; what your telephone number is; what your controversial opinions are – and once posted, these will never cease to be in the public domain.

Is it easier just to bow out altogether?

What will the future hold for Facebook? Photograph: Getty Images
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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.