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Privacy on Facebook

Facebook’s new “instant personalization” feature is sharing supposedly private information with third-party developers without users’ permission. Here’s what you can — and can’t — do about it.

1. Online privacy is an illusion.

Everyone, from the ACLU and U.S. senators to 72,000 people and counting in the “Facebook, stop invading my privacy!” group is saying that Facebook’s privacy policies need to be more transparent.

But the Internet is a public place, and federal guidelines protecting social networking users from privacy violations are nonexistent. Facebook has been chipping away at the illusion of privacy for years. Is it unethical? Perhaps. But Facebook is a business, so caveat emptor. As Dan Yoder writes on Gizmodo, “They owe us nothing.”

2. Instant personalization is big bucks.

Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed, “We are building a Web where the default is social.” The interests you list, the community pages you join and the things you “like” on Facebook are now aggregated into its new Open Graph API, which allows selected third-party partners like Yelp to access your private data and use it to develop applications.

The result is a web-wide taxonomy where Facebook users are, unbeknownst to themselves, offering themselves up for free as marketing data. With more than 400 million users, Facebook is the Internet’s biggest crowd-sourcing success. Data mining of social networks translates to a goldmine not only for advertisers, but potentially for any curious entity.

3. It didn’t happen yesterday.

Since last December, information like your gender or list of friends was all deemed publicly available, with no option to opt out of being part of the API. Previously, application developers could store your data up to 24 hours. But this limitation was lifted last month. Now, when you install an application like Farmville or a take a quiz, all of your data, from the event you RSVP-ed to last summer to your hometown and favorite movies, is free game.

Take a look at this timeline from the Electronic Frontier Foundation about Facebook’s gradually eroding privacy policies. The site’s come a long way since its 2004 inception in a college dorm room.

4. The truth is hard to find.

Facebook isn’t making it easy for users to find out the truth, and that’s perhaps its biggest failing. A December 2009 letter from Zuckerberg said that Facebook was fulfilling a popular request to simplify privacy settings. But the privacy controls actually got more complicated. It now takes 50 clicks to get your profile down to its bare bones. Same with last month’s announcement that couches the sharing of social plug-in data in the more cuddly language of “experienc[ing] the web with your friends.”

But while Facebook talks a big game about privacy, is this just lip service?

Yoder calls it a bait-and-switch: “Facebook gets you to share information that you might not otherwise share, and then they make it publicly available. Since they are in the business of monetizing information about you for advertising purposes, this amounts to tricking their users into giving advertisers information about themselves.”

5. How to opt out.

The easiest way: Delete your account. But if you’re not willing to go cold turkey, at least minimize your applications. Here’s how.

Follow these instructions to just say no to instant personalization.

The bottom line is, you probably shouldn’t post anything on the Internet that you don’t want on the Internet. And don’t expect companies to have your best interest in mind.



  • George

    It’s about time Facebook started getting some music about their privacy policies and practices! If I was a fake or criminal I’d have had a field day taking advantage of other FBrs. Regardless of warnings like this one, it’s amazing how many on FB still have super autobiographies and personal contact info in their profiles. I was tracked down via USPS at my home address which I NEVER included in my profile. Calling FB on the phone I got only option their given phone number’s available only to law enforcement, which I also refuse to pretend to be. That scared me most of all. Why should ANY FB member trust mistrusting FB? What makes me happiest of all, though, is that I don’t and cannot afford to have a camera!!! What’s law enforcement doing about this stuff besides “filing complaints?”

  • skaizun

    If people would simply realize that the world can view any “foot print” they leave on the internet – - whether it’s a resume on a job search website or a game selected on a social networking website – - can be tracked by both legitimate authorities and ne’er-do-wells, they might be more careful about what they do and “say”. I’ve had to tell quite a few of my Facebook friends not to give such personal information as their or friends/relatives’ home addresses and/or directions to their homes or meeting places. One person (quite intelligent, BTW), had published her complete weekend schedule for some of her Facebook friends whom she intended to meet, which some criminal or nut case could have used to stalk or rob her; she doesn’t do that, anymore!

    Having said the above, the fact that at least one wanted felon – - recently caught using Facebook – - indicates that the internet is a blessing, not a curse; in other words, you can run, you can even think you’re hiding, but, you’ll be caught! Of course, that applies to both good and bad guys!

    P.S. Curious that I had to leave a “name” and “e-mail” (both required) to give this comment, although nothing said that either had to be “real”!



  • David

    The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook:

  • Larry

    I use facebook to stay in touch with my family and a few real friends. With all the privacy problems I decided to edit out 95% of the info in my profile and to be careful what I post, upload, and link. Acting with discretion and keeping one’s FB profile simple may be the best way to protect privacy on FB and the web in general.

  • Lori

    FB’s data mining policies are insidious and unethical in my opinion. Thank you PBS for sharing the article and making it easier for me to protect my information.

  • E. Nowak

    And yet you show is on Facebook!!! Do you see the irony??

  • lulabell

    Hi PBS! What are your data retention policies?

    There is definitely evidence that FaceBook is deliberately attempting to alter how individuals perceive privacy. The Beacon program’s difficulties with Blockbuster and the Videotape Privacy Protection Act is just one example. There may be reasonable grounds for further suspicion where Facebook bumps up against connections to In-Q-Tel funding. The open source intelligence angle here is especially interesting, where, as an open source intelligence hub combined with CALEA-compliant deep packet inspection equipment ostensibly sold for traffic shaping purposes, FaceBook becomes an automated psychological profiling application.

    What I find just as troubling is the way Facebook trains users to participate more effectively in viral marketing campaigns, essentially teaching consumers how to be advertisers to sell to themselves. The distortions of reality characteristic of marketing and advertising become psychologically internalized, not just a part of the environment, but a part of one’s attitude towards what one encounters in the environment. The breast cancer awareness campaign, where female users were encouraged to reveal their bra color, is just one example.

    FaceBook is a business, but the significant angle there is that the users are the product — and like any business — FaceBook has an interest in exerting control over its product.

  • George

    A couple of days ago the page had aite along the lines of do not listen/pay attention to news media, et. al regarding warnings about Facebook. Not there anymore that I can find. Could be this kind of informative campaign is slowly “sinking in?”

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