Sunday, May 23, 2010

Facebook Privacy: What to Do With Your Account

Is your Facebook account leaking private data without your knowing about it? Probably. What exactly happened at Facebook and what to do about it?

Facebook came out in 2003 with a strong premise of privacy against then market leader MySpace, and started with its membership restricted to universities. The model sold to the users was that you could have "rings" of privacy: you could control who could see your data, your friends would get to see what you were ready to show them, and others would see much less. Facebook had a slightly slow start. Its selective approach to accounts, and the ability to control who could see what about your data, ended up, in  the long term, being strong competitive advantages, to the degree that MySpace is now starting to come unraveled.

As Facebook progressively became more dominant in the marketplace, the company's ambition grew to want to become the primary place where a web user maintains her identity. Simultaneously, and in order to monetize more of its membership, it changed its default privacy options multiple times, in such a way that data previously treated as private became public by default, requiring a difficult opt-out procedure that is unclear to most of its users. On several occasions, data that had been private to your friends only became, by default, public to all.

There were already many complaints about Facebook privacy changes, focused, in particular, on default privacy status changes to previously existing data. The straw that broke the camel's back, for many high profile users, was when Facebook recently announced that it would share large amounts of personal data with other social networks and web service providers, in order to make the users' web experience more seamless. The follow-up on this announcement was that several high profile users of Facebook publicly announced their intention to delete their Facebook accounts, a procedure that, ironically, if not perfectly managed, might still leave your personal data with Facebook. Political personalities in multiple countries have now raised concerns about Facebook's approach to privacy.

Compounding the problem is Mark Zuckerberg's attitude on privacy. Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and youthful CEO, has shown an uncompromising position to the world, basically stating that privacy does not need to exist in the 21st century, and that those who object are obstructionists, left behind by the tide of progress. In his eyes, privacy is not longer "a social norm." While there is no doubt that attitudes about private vs. public data has significantly evolved in the past 20 years, there is also no doubt that it is strongly in Facebook's interest to make as much of their users' "private" data public so as to be able to monetize it for its own benefit. And - Facebook owns immense amounts of its' users private data, from pictures, to writings, to likes and dislikes and much more. It would be shorter to list what Facebook does not have in its data vaults... Zuckerberg is known as a prankster, but some of his past escapades show what could possibly be a less than ethical approach to business. Much of this, though, could be lack of experience: Mark Zuckerberg, a remarkably bright Harvard one-time student, is still only 26.

To make things even worse, Facebook's engineering staff has proved to be less than competent when dealing with data protection. In recent instances, they have been shown to leak significant amounts of private data, contravening their own biased privacy policy.

What should you do about your account? Facebook and its CEO have made it very clear  that they do not believe that any of your data should be private. It is in their interest to use your private data. Facebook is considering simplifying its privacy options - but this is what they are saying today. It is clear to most in the industry that, even if you can figure out how to set privacy options today, Facebook might expose more of your data any day. These are's recommendations:
  • Do not trust Facebook with any data that you would not want the world to know. Use it as a window to the public only. They have been found time and again, by philosophy and by actions, to be an untrustworthy private data vault.
  • If you intend to delete your Facebook account, do it properly, without being tricked by Facebook, using this M.O. (good at publishing time only - could change in the future)
  • Monitor your privacy settings using ReclaimPrivacy. You can also use Saveface to set all of your settings to friends only - but another Facebook change could leave some of your data exposed in the future. Both of them are discussed here. Using ReclaimPrivacy is discussed here.

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