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Monday, December 20, 2010
Updated: December 21, 5:32 PM ET
Third party drop-in


Sub sea-level and still secret ... but if the digital revolution has its way it may not always be so.

You know that mid-day, no-frills spot you like because it's got just enough oomph to have fun with, but not quite enough to attract anyone else. The reason you have fun is mainly because its empty, you know the spot's every nuance and when it'll be at its best -- which approximates average at other spots.

Well, get ready to share that spot too.

Last month Facebook announced a new "@facebook.com" email service for users that will be rolled out incrementally. The service is not just about an email address, it aims to combine many of the technologies we use to communicate: email, text messaging, instant messaging, etc. All of these are intended to come displayed in a "seamless" and archived set of communications with individuals.

Consider for a moment, the information that this service makes available to Facebook: your cell phone number, the cell numbers of everyone who texts you, the content of those texts, the email addresses of everyone who emails you, and the content of those emails. Combine this with the information Facebook already has (and may claim rights to): your photos, videos, the city you live in, your age, education, gender, relationship status, and the content of all of your messages, wall posts, etc.

Just one problem with this model is, Facebook has proven itself terrible as a steward of your information. It has marketed your information, and has made it easy for your information to be stolen and otherwise collected and disseminated. Every entity from the CIA to Johnson and Johnson has already had a good, hard look. Earlier this year, a British security expert used data mining tools to collect information on 171 million Facebook users, and then posted that information to the World Wide Web via a Torrent file.

If that's not bad enough, Facebook further claims the right to collaborate your data with outside sources. And for that matter, just about anyone can cross-reference that data to discover whether the last taco you ate was carne asada or veggie.

Please, no friend requests.

All of this got me thinking. As a writer who works in the surf media, I've noticed a growing trend: it's often more efficient to connect with interview subjects and to get questions answered through Facebook than email. But there is a lot more going on, too. Say a certain swell is on the way, and the wall posts start lighting up. On the back end of the swell, we start to see the results -- in bragging posts and photos. Even without computer driven algorithms, in many cases it's easy to guess the whereabouts of posted secret spots, discoveries, and otherwise rare, inconsistent, or hard-to-reach surf scores. Many of the leads are all there on the page, archived.

Now, it may seem a long shot, but all of that archived information can be gleaned using data mining techniques and collaborated with outside information like swell degree, interval, tide, wind, etc. It may take some work, but there is gold to be mined in these bits of braggadocio.

But think for a moment about the more complete information we're also freely giving away. Swellwatch.com, formerly Wetsand.com, provides a service called "Session Log." The idea is, you go on to log your surf spot via a Google map, you log the date and also the time. You rate the session and make notes. Swellwatch provides the rest: the exact swell angles, interval, tide, wind, etc. -- all to exacting figures. Later, you can compare your various surfs at this spot in your log. Also, you can share that information with your friends. You'll know when to score, and your friends will too. Swellwatch says this is "a way to see friendly faces in the line up."

And basically, you've given your intimate, and hard-won knowledge of this particular destination away for, what? Remember all of those dry runs, hikes for nothing, days of sleeping in the dirt, flat tires, blown engines, ruined livers, lost lovers, jobs, careers and homes -- it all means nothing. You've unleashed the "tragedy of the masses" on the spots you hold dear.

How so? Even though Swellwatch/Wetsand says it won't share your information on the Session Log page, there is nothing legally holding it to this whim. In fact, this is where "terms and conditions" pages become important to read (you know, the document you usually skip right over). This little paragraph is a dozy:

"By submitting Content ... User automatically grants ... royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive right and license to use, reproduce, publish, translate, sublicense, copy, and distribute the Content in whole or in part worldwide."

It's also backed up by this steel trap:

"SwellWatch reserves the right to amend this Agreement at any time and without notice."

From Pac Northwest fringe wilderness to mainstream spot? It's up to you.

So, basically, any information you submit, they now own and can repurpose with no payment or obligation to you. And because they can change the agreement at any time without notice to you, any pledge of confidentiality has no guarantee.

Just to ground this legal hoop-jumping in the real world, I'll tell a little story that I am honestly ashamed of my participation in:

In the early days of the digital revolution (like, ten years ago), along with other writers, I collected information about well-traveled surf spots in Southern California for an outfit called Swell.com, which at the time, owned Surfline.com. A year later, Swell folded, and Surfline received all of the content we collected. A couple of years passed before Surfline's founder, Sean Collins, "authored" a book that included much of the information, in some cases word for word, that my colleagues and I compiled.

Now, the real writers were paid by Swell and, to some extent, gave up ownership of their work. But the point is, once you hand over your intimate surf knowledge, you have no idea where it will end up or who will have claimed to have authored it. The scary part is, the example above is a very slow, nearly analog example of what will become of your own surf knowledge in the digital age. If it has any merits at all, there is a very real threat that your spot will become blown out by the next swell. Plus, you'll be giving it away for free.

Last week hackers infiltrated the Gawker Media, McDonalds and Walgreens websites and came away with user information on hundreds of thousands of individuals. Marketers use the "friend finder" function on Facebook to compile data on an unknown number of users. In the end, whether information is stolen or compiled, the result is the same. The information is made available to previously unknown parties. There are however, big differences between the collection of your personal information and that of your surf information. You can change your phone number, email address, and a whole host of personal markers. There are laws on the books to protect you and your information, and to rectify the problems caused by identity theft. Once your surf information is collected and made public, however, there is no turning back.

My advice is, if you feel compelled to log your information, use a paper notebook. As an information gathering tool, old-school notebooks are amazing. You can soak them in water and they still boot up; if they catch fire, you can still save much of your data; you can take them to the beach and rub them in the sand if you want too. Hell, you can paddle out with one.

Secondly, if you feel the need to tell a friend, find someone you trust, and tell that friend in person. This is the real way to see a smiling face in the lineup. Not only will your sessions be better off, you might be saving a little something for future generations too.