December 10, 2009

Facebook's Devious Privacy Ploy

Greetings. The Net is abuzz about some major privacy changes by Facebook, which show signs in key ways of being yet another in their continuing history of ham-handed privacy gaffes. No, I'm not concentrating today on their notorious "beacon" system, though it was just announced that Facebook is shutting beacon down and paying almost $10M to settle a related lawsuit.

No, today let's talk about how Facebook has attempted to deceptively shill users into lowering their privacy protections, in the false guise of supposedly improving their privacy settings.

I am not a big Facebook user. In fact, I am hardly a Facebook user at all. I have an account for research purposes, but I don't publicize it. I've routinely ignored the multitude of "friend" requests I receive from people who find the account (and I do essentially the same thing for "LinkedIn" requests -- where I don't even have a account).

My attitude toward these services is that -- at least for me -- they do not bring significant value. Plus, the noise level of associated phishing, spam, and other crooked solicitations is way too high, and frankly the amount of time required to maintain more social networking accounts along with everything else I deal with would just be unproductive.

That's not so say that anyone else need share my opinions, but I hope this explains to those legitimate folks who have tried to contact me via those services why they did not receive responses (on the other hand, I'm plenty easy to contact in a multitude of other ways).

Facebook of course is all about sharing information. But as we know from a continuing sequence of news stories, many people are getting seriously burned from sharing their personal information on Facebook.

Youngsters -- and even adults -- are getting into trouble for photos they post showing partying or drinking. People have been fired -- or not hired -- on the basis of such photos. In one recent case, an insurance company has tried to kill a woman's health coverage, apparently because they thought she was having too much "fun" as shown in a Facebook entry.

Amanda Knox's very recent murder conviction in Italy may have significantly been unfairly influenced by the Italian media's fascination and exploitation of her Facebook materials. Law enforcement is now using Facebook for sting operations, even for such relatively mundane matters as targeting underage drinkers.

Without attempting to evaluate right now whether or not such uses of Facebook should be viewed as legitimate, it is clear that keeping the minutia of your personal life offline is obviously a good step to help ensure that you won't be subjected to judgment and possible exploitation based on that information.

But for those persons who do feel the desire to share their lives online, having complete control over the manner of that sharing is critical.

Unless you're a celebrity or some other sort of public figure, sharing more than the absolute minimum of personal information with the the world at large ("everyone") via Facebook usually just doesn't make sense. Even if you're a young person seemingly with nothing to lose, it must be remembered that once information, photos, or other data have been publicly available for any period of time, they are likely to be available in some form, archived somewhere, essentially forever. And photos that didn't seem to matter when you're 16 may have a whole different impact when you're 30.

Be that as it may, the key to using Facebook "safely" -- to the extent that this is possible -- is by consistent and careful use of their relatively confusing privacy controls, that determine which information that you put online will be shared with particular classes of users.

So it's a pretty big deal when Facebook, as they've just done, completely revamps their privacy system, and forces all uses to make new selections about virtually all aspects of their Facebook privacy.

Unfortunately, the manner in which Facebook has done this shows all the signs of being what amounts to a nasty privacy scam.

To be fair, the Facebook privacy changes are not all bad. For example, they now permit per-item controls over privacy settings. That's a positive change.

But the truly devious aspect of what Facebook has done is their choosing of new recommended privacy defaults for all users -- presented during the new "forced" privacy changes dialogue -- that in many cases seriously reduce default privacy protections on Facebook entries, in ways that will often share with much larger audiences key materials that you may previously have (wisely) restricted only to, for example, your friends.

While it's possible to override these new "suggested defaults," one of the worst actions that can be taken in a privacy context is to try manipulate users into accepting reduced privacy protections on a default basis, especially in the context of promoting "improved" privacy settings.

It's duplicitous, deceitful, and as with Facebook's ill-fated beacon system, calls into question the entire underpinnings of Facebook's "ethical" structure.

The reason why Facebook would risk behaving this way seems rather clear. They've watched as more "broadcast" oriented systems like Twitter have gained massive popularity, and Facebook wants a bigger piece of that pie.

Twitter users by and large are fully aware of the fact that they're potentially "tweeting" to the entire world. In many ways that's the whole point. And since this is understood, the sorts of information we tweet tends to be rather carefully framed with this in mind.

Facebook on the other hand is attempting to coerce users into drastically changing privacy settings on a potentially vast range of personally-sensitive materials in ways that could in some cases -- no kidding! -- seriously upset or damage their lives.

If users wish to voluntarily and without coercion increase the visibility of their Facebook data that's fine.

Facebook's new system of proposing changed defaults for most users, that will often drastically reduce users' privacy, is difficult to categorize as anything other than basically exploitative and -- yes -- evil.


Posted by Lauren at December 10, 2009 11:33 AM | Permalink
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