Trapped in the Matrix

Facebook, LinkedIn, Bebo: they all provide alluring platforms for social networking. But the fact is that users are at the mercy of these intelligent networks that use human data as their source of profit, controlling people via a kind of virtual reality they are lured into with the promise of “sharing and connecting with people”.

That’s been all too clear to me since late November 2008, when Facebook became my modern-day ‘Matrix’ – a dimension from which I’m still trying to escape.

I used to take pleasure from being inside the Matrix. That is, until I realised I no longer had control over my virtual self. I had relished the connection and the sharing, logging on multiple times per day to scour news feeds from hundreds of my “best friends.”

But on 29 November, my Facebook account was hacked into (I suspect by a technically savvy, vindictive ex-boyfriend). I found myself locked out of my own account, so I called friends and asked them what they could see on my profile page. To my horror, my profile was awash with libellous material – messages that could easily cost me my job, my friends and my reputation.

But in a cyber-emergency, what kind of real-world support would come to my rescue?

As it turns out: none. I spent the next two days frantically emailing Facebook’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California. My first shock was the discovery that Facebook does not have a customer telephone number. Well, it does, but not one that anyone ever answers. And the only email response I received was an automated message stating that my message was being held “in a queue”. My log of all correspondence with Facebook shows a trail of unanswered messages and glib responses that is frightening to say the least.

“I feel like I’ve been mugged,” I remember gasping to one friend. But in a mugging, the perpetrator has free rein of only your material possessions. I would have preferred an attack by some petty thief any day over what this hacker was trying to steal – my privacy, identity and relationships. At that moment, I realised that Facebook wasn’t free – the vulnerability of these things was the high price of membership.

Some 36 hours later, when I received an email from a flesh-and-blood member of the Facebook squad, I could barely contain my excitement at the thought that I had pierced the Matrix control room. But Facebook still wasn’t convinced that my real and virtual selves were one.

Two days later, I finally managed to track down a Facebook press officer in London, whom I convinced of the severity of my situation. So by Monday evening, my virtual self was invisible. I was out of the Matrix. Or so I thought.

Because Facebook makes its advertising revenues based on the number of active accounts operated, it has an unspoken policy of not deleting any. My account was only “disabled”.

But what if a Facebook account holder really wants out? This question is where my customer service nightmare reveals a deeper corporate flaw. Maria Aspan’s New York Times article, “How Sticky is Facebook Membership? Just Try Breaking Free”, paints Facebook as an opportunistic leech, locking members in its network unless threatened by extreme measures.

For my crisis, a sluggish response was as good as none. By Monday night, the damage was done. In those long two days in which Facebook was unwilling to answer its phones, the hacker had managed to contact numerous friends of mine, pretending to be me. He assassinated my character – setting me up as a self-confessed whore, an idiot and professionally unqualified.

Not only did I have to explain the hacker’s lies to close friends, but I also had to contact acquaintances I barely knew.

The last straw in my interactions with Facebook administrators was an email from a Facebook representative in London, who was meant to forward my email, but instead hit “reply”: “And she still goes on…” he had written.

Try Googling “hacked Facebook account” and you’ll come up with not a list of sites committed to helping victims, but a list of sites teaching people how to hack into accounts. Thousands of Facebook users have had experiences similar to mine, but curiously, this privacy loophole has received very little press coverage.

How vulnerable are users when they log into this appallingly easy-to-hack world multiple times a day? Facebook claims that your vulnerability relates directly to the weakness of your self-imposed privacy settings, warning: “You post ‘user content’ on the site at your own risk.”

But with no clearly defined exit from the Matrix, it seems this is one risk its users unwittingly sign onto for life.

The author is a financial sector professional working in the City of London

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

Related Topics