I did a little reporting to get the real story behind the reports of a Facebook burglary spree that supposedly used the service — right after its launch of Places — to find victims who were away on vacation. I emailed Nashua, NH detective Dan Archambault, who told me that only two of the cases involved Facebook and in each case, “one or two of the suspects were Facebook friends with the respective homeowners. They basically had access to the walls and could read that the families were away on vacation. The information was only available to friends and the Facebook Places feature was NOT a part of this. And finally my advice to Facebook users is carefully pick your friends and watch what you post.”
And my advice is don’t believe everything you read. So this was not a case of a criminal using Facebook to find any old random victim. The implication of the coverage is that we were all — all 500 million of us — at risk for being so foolish to make ourselves public on Facebook and make ourselves vulnerable to every criminal out there. No, it’s foolish to make the wrong friends. Always has been. Still is.
I also contacted Facebook, and a PR person there sent back suggestions for how to wisely use the service: “I would recommend creating friend lists to separate people you really trust from others. Then, use the publisher privacy control to
send status updates to appropriate groups (and only them). I actually think it may make sense to tell people you really trust that you are gone through Facebook just as you would in person. Then, they can watch your place for you, feed your cat, etc… As for everyone else, if you wouldn’t tell them in person you were leaving town, you probably shouldn’t use Facebook to tell them. As always, we also recommend people only accept friend requests from others they actually know.”
If only things were so simple for Google, where, according to Gawker, an engineer used his high-level access to the company’s data bases to stalk teenagers. Google fired him. But the damage is done. We spoke about the case on today’s This Week in Google and as Leo Laporte and Gina Trapani said, to keep systems running, someone will always have access to data. Of course, that someone should be trusted. But as this case reveals, you never know whom to trust. So the company must come up with systems to assure trust. Should there be teams that must operate together in failsafe mode to get access to data? You tell me what would work.
The bottom line for both companies is that trust is essential and cases such as these can ruin trust and eventually ruin companies if we cannot depend on them. In the first case, media blew up a story for effect. In the second case, a dangerous vulnerability is revealed.
: AND: Being a journalism professor, I suppose I should point out the journalistic lesson here about reporting.
When this story first came out, it was marked by sloppy reporting that was only repeated and diluted. I read a number of the reports and backed up the line to the Nashua paper trying to find answers to basic questions. Nothing.
For anyone who knows the slightest thing about Facebook — that is, any reporter who uses it — the reporting raised obvious questions. So I contacted Facebook, who gave me the email of the detective, and I asked him: How did the accused use Facebook? In how many cases? Were they friends — that is, connected on Facebook — with any of the victims? Facebook tells me that its Places feature was not involved; true? Finally, what advice do you have for people using Facebook? Plus a few, more-detailed questions about the specifics of how these victims used Facebook.
The detective said this is an ongoing investigation, so he was limited in what he could tell me. But, as you can see, he answered the essential and obvious questions reporters and editors should have asked before. And if they didn’t have answers, they should have said so. I say lately that the key skill of journalists is going to be less saying what we know than saying what we don’t know. That is the essential skill in process journalism.
But all along the chain, nobody wanted to ruin a good story: USE FACEBOOK AND YOU’LL BE ROBBED! Much more fun, isn’t it? Reporting takes all the fun out of it.