Facebook, the privacy fiend

Facebook has become a privacy fiend in recent years. It seems to make a habit of taking steps that outrage privacy advocates while imposing its perception of how users should share their personal information in such a way that best advances its interests. I should probably point out that Facebook’s privacy moves are generally made within its privacy policy’s parameters. The changes to its privacy policy from time to time are made by consent (you agree to changes when you agree to Facebook’s terms).

The problem with how Facebook approaches privacy. What it does is as follows:

  • Facebook makes determinations how users should be sharing their information or what the current trends are;
  • It then changes its privacy policy and terms of use to achieve these perceived changes to how personal information is handled; and
  • Facebook then opens users’ personal information up by default to align with its determinations of what the trends are or how it believes we should handle our personal information.

They did this in December when Facebook opened up sections of users’ profiles to the public Web by default, leaving them with a set of deceptively labelled privacy controls to approve or change. The majority of users simply approved the settings and, in the process, opened up far more of their profiles to the public Web than they did previously.

So what happens now? Christina Warren at Mashable explained the following in her post titled “Facebook Open Graph: What it Means for Privacy”:

I took a look at the different documentation of the Open Graph API and the different social plugins, and gathered that the data collection and overall privacy settings don’t differ from what has already been available. Again, what changes is how that data can be displayed to different people and how it can be integrated in different ways.

Nevertheless, it is imperative that users who have concerns about privacy make sure they read and understand what information they are making available to applications before using them. Users need to be aware that when they “Like” an article on CNN, that “Like” may show up on a customized view that their friends see.

Public no longer means “public on Facebook,” it means “public in the Facebook ecosystem.” Some companies, like Pandora, are going to go to great lengths to allow users to separate or opt out of linking their Pandora and Facebook accounts together, but users can’t expect all apps and sites to take that approach. My advice to you: Be aware of your privacy settings.

What isn’t yet clear is if there will be any granular permissions for public data. For instance, I might want to share that I “Like” a CNN.com article with a certain group of people, but not make it public to my entire social graph. For now, users need to assume that if you do something that is considered public, that action can potentially end up on a customized stream for everyone in your social graph. (emphasis added

As Leo Laporte pointed out on This Week in Google 39, Open Graph starts to mean your online life is an open book to Facebook. Facebook introduces some pretty far reaching and invasive tracking tools under the guise of increased ease of use and deployment of open apis and technologies.

There is a flip-side to this: these new developments make it easier to users to see what their friends are doing and find interesting. There is some value in that as well as the potential for sites users may never have visited before being customised when those users arrive on the site for the first time.

The fundamental difficulty I have with Facebook’s approaches to users’ personal information is that the company is arrogant enough to use its policy framework to force its users to expose their personal information however Facebook wants it exposed so it can pursue its agenda further. It has no sense of responsibility for the trust its 400+ million users place in it or for the tremendous amount of knowledge it has about us. Facebook abuses its users as if it has a Divine right to do so. Google blundered when it exposed too much of its users’ personal information recently when it launched Buzz but Google had the humility to acknowledge it had made a mistake and took almost immediate steps to address users’ concerns. Facebook manipulates the permissions users gave it when they signed up to reshape the privacy landscape on the Web. True the company is changing the way we relate to each other and the Web (largely due to its sheer size) but Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to be too concerned about the cost.

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