Social Privacy

8 09 2011

After steamrolling over every other social network save for Twitter, Facebook has emerged as one of the primary means for people to communicate and share information. According to Facebook’s own statistics, there are 750 million users with an average of 130 friends each [1]. With so many people connected to so many others, massive amounts of information are being created all the time. We all know what kind of information exists out there on Facebook: birthdays, hometowns, relationships, and so much more. However, what happens to this information after it is published is often overlooked or ignored. All information that a user posts on Facebook is subject to the site’s privacy policy, but honestly, how many people do you think actually read the entire policy? Upon clicking the “Sign-Up” button, every user states that he or she read and agreed to the privacy policy (and the terms of use), but I am willing to bet that most people never even clicked the link to view it, or entirely missed the small text stating the agreement.

I know that I did not read the privacy policy when I created my account 4 years ago, and probably didn’t look at my sharing settings at all until I started reading about privacy concerns with Facebook, so I wanted to do a little research on what The Social Network itself says is done with my information. Facebook’s privacy policy is large; weighing in at roughly 5800 words, the document requires a lot of effort to get through, and even more to understand what it is saying. According to their policy, the information that a user provides can be used in multiples ways. The site uses user activity data to improve the day-to-day functioning of the website, for example. The site will also suggest other pages on Facebook based on your interests, or similarly suggest friends based upon who you are already friends with [2]. This is pretty vanilla stuff that most people understand and accept when using the site.

There are some troubling parts of the privacy policy, though. Facebook also uses collected information to target advertising, a money-maker for the site. The policy states that advertisers can “choose the characteristics of users who will see their advertisements” and that Facebook “may use any of the non-personally identifiable attributes we have collected…to select the appropriate audience for those advertisements” [2]. Other services, like social ads (ads with your friends’ pictures next to them) make use of users’ personal interests. However, you can opt out of ‘services’ like these if you find the right page (good luck). This idea of settings that are ‘opt out’ instead of ‘opt in’ seems like a problem, especially if users have no idea they’ve ‘ opted in’ in the first place. Another especially concerning section of the privacy policy concerns information shared with the ‘Everyone’ setting. According to the policy, this information may “be accessed by everyone on the Internet (including people not logged into Facebook), be indexed by third party search engines, and be imported, exported, distributed, and redistributed by us and others without privacy limitations” [2]. In short, if any information is shared with this setting, anyone can find it and Facebook can do whatever it wants with it. These policies should make users think more carefully about what they put online.

Facebook has faced criticism in the past over its privacy policies, so it has always been a work in progress. Most recently, Facebook announced they will be rolling out a series of changes to the way users can control their own privacy. Users will soon be able to more easily see what content is shared with whom, approve tagged photos before they show up on their profile, and easily view their profile from the perspective of another user [3]. These are features that were either previously non-existent or buried underneath a series of links.

These are all great things for Facebook to do from a user standpoint, but it seems to me that there is an inherent irony when it comes to a social network increasing user privacy control. Facebook is a business, and its business is to get people to share information. The site would love for every user to share their information with the ‘Everyone’ privacy setting. The more information users share, the more Facebook is able to use it to improve their bottom-line. So the take home-point here is that you really have to be careful when it comes to social networks. Take a look at Facebook’s privacy policy to start, and understand just what your rights are when it comes to your information. And if your information is something you’d rather not share, just keep it off the internet in the first place.