Evelyn Castillo-Bach is the founder of two social networks, Collegiate Nation and UmeNow, which she intends to be Facebook competitors. Like others I’ve spoken to for Fast Company recently, Castillo-Bach is a crusader for privacy and control over data, and the chief antagonist in her crusade is–you guessed it–our current cover boy. Castillo-Bach even tried to directly give Mr. Zuckerberg a piece of her mind lately, but, as she explains, she was rebuffed.
FAST COMPANY: You threw down a challenge to Mark Zuckerberg to debate Internet privacy. Did he take you up on that?
EVELYN CASTILLO-BACH: No! He didn’t… I’m not going to say I’m totally surprised, but I was rather disappointed. I hope he did not feel threatened. I know he got the message, but he’s not responded.
How do you know he got the message?
Because I sent it to his Facebook account. I assume he checks it.
Your press release says you’re known as the Privacy Mom. Who bestowed that moniker upon you?
That moniker was bestowed upon me by one of my followers, who’s also one of my advisors. I thought it fit rather well. I’m old enough to be the mother of most startup entrepreneurs. I was motivated to launch Collegiate Nation because I was aghast at how Facebook handled people’s private information. I was initially motivated when I observed how my college-age sons use the site. I did what most people don’t do–I read the terms and conditions, so I was more than surprised when I realized that people didn’t have control and ownership of their data. The terms are so obtuse and convoluted and complex, it’s nearly impossible to read, but I actually did read it and understood that in essence Facebook functions very much like a data collection company. I cautioned my sons and their friends, and they shrugged their shoulders and said, “Yeah, mom, of course…” Rather than wring my hands and worry, I decided I would create an alternative to Facebook.
It’s really pretty much a David and Goliath situation, though, isn’t it? Facebook just had a $5 billion IPO. Can your sites really be considered competitors in a meaningful way?
I certainly do consider Collegiate Nation and UmeNow together to be a strong competitor to Facebook. The real challenge in toppling or unseating the Facebooks of the world is in educating people about their private information and how it can and will be used against them. Once people really understand how that works, I think you’ll see a seismic shift. People don’t realize that their private information, their communications and associations, what they feel–all this information is extremely valuable, and it’s basically being traded like it’s soybean or silver, like it’s any other commodity.
I’ve used Facebook since 2004. I rarely post data on it, but use it keep track of friends, send messages, and so forth. I don’t think I’ve ever clicked on an ad or spent money through Facebook in any way. So long as it’s not costing me anything, and they’re offering me a valuable service, couldn’t the case be made that their use of my data for profit is harmless to me?
There are a number of errors in your assumptions there. A few years ago, some MIT students put together a piece of code and were able to predict, with a high degree of certainty, which people on Facebook were gay–even though those people never posted anything gay-related. These were people who took great care not to expose in any way that they were gay, and yet they were able to identify which people were gay based on who their friends were on Facebook, and what those friends had posted. This notion that somehow if you don’t divulge information about yourself, you’re protected, is a misunderstanding of how data collection works, and of the power of technology today to correlate relationships.
What harm is done to me if some companies triangulate information about me?
They can create mathematical formulas to predict what type of risk you might represent to an insurance company, for instance. Medical companies are extremely interested in tapping into the type of stuff that people post on social networks. If a friend has posted a link on lupus, or Alzheimer’s, or some other disorder, that information becomes extremely valuable. Chances are good to excellent that if David and Evelyn are friends, and Evelyn is posting about lupus, that one reason she’s posting is that David is also interested in lupus. By piecing this data together, a medical insurance company has insight into David that the company might not otherwise have, since in the U.S., federal laws protect medical records. But if I can gain access to David’s medical interests another way…
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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