Thursday, December 10, 2009

Facebook and Privacy - Headed in the Wrong Direction

I'm a bit behind on this blog due to an exceptionally bad cold that has kept me sidelined nearly all week. The good news is that the ACLU's Nicole Ozer has written an excellent op-ed that I can get right to that deals with all that's happening over at Facebook these days regarding privacy - particularly the sites recent supposed privacy "upgrades".

As I have written here in the past: One thing is certain, with the explosion in popularity of social networking sites like Facebook (and that's to say nothing of company's like Google and the array of privacy challenges many of its products represent), the ability to protect ones personal privacy has become increasingly challenging.

It goes without saying that tools like Facebook 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. Recent Facebook flaps highlights growing concerns about the increasingly sophisticated technologies used to track online activities in an effort to more precisely target advertising.

Recent Facebook flaps highlights growing concerns about the increasingly sophisticated technologies used to track online activities in an effort to more precisely target advertising. What has also become apparent is that these social networking sites have not exactly been forthcoming about how much user information they harvest, share, and with whom.

However, in recent months users have been becoming more and more 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) - a technology that tracks user's online purchases and informs their friends.

The controversy raised by Facebook's use of the Beacon technology - and the subsequent victory of privacy advocates - has helped ignite a larger debate regarding the largely hidden and growing problem of online consumer-tracking and information-sharing.

With that as the backdrop, here's a few choice clips from Nicole's op-ed in the California Progress Report:

In response to pressure about its privacy practices, including an ACLU petition signed by over 43,000 concerned Internet users, Facebook has released a new privacy policy, modified its profile and publication privacy controls, and rolled out a "Transition Tool" to guide all 350 million Facebook users through the process of choosing new privacy settings.

To learn more about today's changes and tips on the new privacy controls, visit our resource page, What Does Facebook's Privacy Transition Mean for You?

We're glad to see Facebook finally put privacy front and center for every one of its users. We hope other companies will do the same. But we are concerned that the Transition Tool and other changes actually discourage or eliminate some privacy protections that Facebook users currently employ. And we're still waiting for Facebook to address the privacy issues concerning third party applications that were raised months ago in our petition. Please sign our new petition demanding that Facebook rethink some of today's changes and continue to give you more control over your own information.


We have three primary privacy concerns with the new system:

There's more "publicly available information" that you can't control: Before the recent changes, you had the option of exposing only a "limited" profile, consisting of as little as your name and networks, to other Facebook users—and nothing at all to Internet users at large. Now your profile picture, current city, friends list, gender, and fan pages are "publicly available information," which means you have no way to prevent any other Facebook user from viewing this information on your profile, and you can only prevent Internet users from viewing this information by disabling search entirely (which you can't do through the Transition Tool).

Facebook is "recommending" that you loosen your privacy settings: For most users, including those who have never changed their Facebook privacy settings, the recommended settings make information less protected and more widely available than the previous default settings. For example, as of last Friday, sensitive information like relationship status and gender preference was available only to your friends by default; now Facebook encourages users to make this information available to "everyone!"

The "Transition Tool" does not allow most users to strengthen privacy settings: Facebook's Transition Tool gives you only two choices: keep your current settings or switch to Facebook's recommendations. And since Facebook's recommendations are less private than the previous default settings, most users have to click through to another page of privacy controls in order to strengthen their settings.


Even if your Facebook profile is "private," when you take a quiz or run any other application on Facebook, that app can access almost everything in your profile: your religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, pictures, and groups. And these apps may have access to most of the info on your friends' profiles too—which means if your friend takes a quiz, they could be giving away your personal information, even if you've never used an app!

The privacy settings that address this issue remain buried behind too many layers of menus and the new controls still fail to explain what applications can really see. So we're asking you to keep up the pressure on Facebook. If you haven't done so already, please take our Facebook quiz [Facebook login required] to peek behind the curtain—and then share it with your friends!

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

I should mention that the ACLU is only one of MANY privacy rights organizations that are critical of Facebooks recently claimed upgrades. A BBC article entitled "Facebook faces criticism on privacy change" notes:

Facebook said the changes help members manage updates they wanted to share, not trick them into revealing too much. "Facebook is nudging the settings toward the 'disclose everything' position," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic). "That's not fair from the privacy perspective."


Jason Kincaid, writing on the Tech Crunch news blog, said some of the changes were made to make Facebook more palatable to search sites such as Bing and Google. Blogger Marshall Kirkpatrick was worried that the default setting for privacy was to make everything visible to everyone.

"This is not what Facebook users signed up for," he wrote. "It's not about privacy at all, it's about increasing traffic and the visibility of activity on the site." He also criticised the fact that the pop-up message that greets members asking them to change their privacy settings was different depending on how engaged that person was with Facebook. He said Facebook was "maddeningly unclear" about the effect of the changes.

You can read the rest of that article here.

An article in the UK's Guardian entitled "Facebook privacy change angers campaigners" notes:

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that campaigns for the rights of internet users, said that while some of the changes were beneficial to the site's worldwide audience, others were "plain ugly". "These new 'privacy' changes are clearly intended to push Facebook users to publicly share even more information than before," Kevin Bankston, a senior attorney with the EFF, wrote on the organisation's blog. "Even worse, the changes will actually reduce the amount of control that users have over some of their personal data."

Click here to read the rest of that article.

And finally, an article in Networld entitled "Facebook users speak out against new privacy settings" points out another problem with the sites new privacy settings...users aren't happy with them either, noting:

Blogger Marshall Kirkpatrick, vice president of content development at ReadWriteWeb, called the privacy settings "near Orwellian." "The company says the move is all about helping users protect their privacy and connect with other people, but the new default option is to change from 'old settings' to becoming visible to 'everyone,'" Kirkpatrick writes. "This is not what Facebook users signed up for. It's not about privacy at all, it's about increasing traffic and the visibility of activity on the site."

Click here to read more of the specific complaints made by site users.

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