Thursday, February 21, 2008

Facebook Threatens Privacy

With the overwhelming popularity of websites like Facebook and Myspace, privacy has been placed on the back burner in the name of social internet networking. Facebook and Myspace pages have the potential to reveal a considerable amount of information about a user's lifestyle, interests, and goals. Depending on the user's settings, co-workers, employers, and certain family members could have access to information about the user that may be better left unknown.

Many Facebook and Myspace users don't consider these privacy issues when posting information about themselves. However, in recent months users have been becoming increasingly conscious of privacy concerns, as Facebook has been criticized for not allowing people to permanently delete their accounts and personal information from the site as well as their use of "Beacon" (no longer in use by Facebook) - a technology that tracks user's online purchases and informs their friends.

The New York Times details some of these privacy concerns:

Adam Cohen writes:

A co-worker apologized to me recently for being slow on a task. “It’s probably just your insomnia from last night,” I said. She was confused about how I knew, but I reminded her we were Facebook friends, and that she had posted a “status update” about her sleeplessness.

It’s a common phenomenon: people “friending” work colleagues on Facebook and then discovering that — as Seinfeld’s George Costanza would melodramatically put it — “worlds collide.” I gained all sorts of insights into another young co-worker when her college friends left reminiscence-filled birthday wishes on her Facebook “wall.”

Facebook was in the news this month for its disturbing policy of making it all but impossible for users to quit the site and erase their personal information. The issue was presented as one of privacy, which it is, but it is more precisely a matter of what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “identity management,” which takes on whole new levels on the Internet.

Goffman argued that people spend much of their lives managing their identity through “presentation of self.” Offline, people use clothing, facial expressions, and the revealing and withholding of personal information to convey to the world who they are, or who they want to be taken to be.

The physicality of the offline world provides built-in protections. When people talk to a group of friends, they can look around to see who is listening. When they buy a book or rent a video, if they pay in cash, no record is made connecting them to the transaction.

It’s more complicated online. Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace create identities for people, and disseminate information about them to large numbers of people.


What Web sites need to do — and what the government should require them to do — is give users as much control over their identities online as they have offline. Users should be asked if they want information to be viewable by others, and by whom: Their friends? Everyone in the world? Privacy settings, which allow for this kind of screening, should be prominent, clear and easily managed. (I’m not sure I was part of the intended audience for my colleague’s college-years anecdotes.)

Before Web sites disseminate information the user did not ask to share, like an online purchase, the user should be notified and should have to affirmatively “opt in.” It should be easy for users to disappear from a Web site that they have been part of, or simply to delete some information about themselves.

In a visit to the editorial board not long ago, a top Google lawyer made the often-heard claim that in the Internet age, people — especially young people — do not care about privacy the way they once did. It is a convenient argument for companies that make money compiling and selling personal data, but it’s not true. Protests forced Facebook to modify Beacon and to ease its policies on deleting information. Push-back of this sort is becoming more common.

No one should have personal data stored or shared without their informed, active consent. If they still want to tell the world — including job interviewers and employers — about their wild weekends, they’re on their own.

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