Facebook and your privacy - part 1

Facebook, Privacy, Time Magazine, NORTH

Some questions to preface this article: Did Facebook just become too big? Does Facebook really wreck your right to privacy? As Facebook approaches its 500 millionth user, how many of those users understand what privacy means? My off-the-cuff answers to my own questions are - the bigger you are, the better the target [see Google's current issues,] and no, I don't believe Facebook wrecks my privacy, plus I would argue that only a small percentage of users understand, or for that matter care, about privacy nor do they understand the true meaning of privacy in many contexts. I'll explain my thoughts on the "idea of privacy" as I empty my head on to the page as it were... [actually in part 2 as I need to be more detailed.]

Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb posted his thoughts last January, but last week the negative Facebook stories began to spread as invasively as Kudzu. Here's a video from Tim O'Reilly who sorta kinda sides with Facebook. Nicholas Carr has a go at Zuckerberg over Facebook's Lock-in and now Time Magazine gives the story the front page. I found all those articles and many more during a very cursory search, it appears that the webs are a-humming over this one.

It feels like there's a lot of fear out there; fear over an assault on our civil liberties, fear of our privacy being invaded. It's palpable and yet it's understandable; when we are reminded every day that we must protect our social security numbers from tricksters and hucksters who'll steal our "identities," then yes, we could get a little paranoid. But sharing your information on Facebook is not akin to exposing yourself or your social security number to thieves. Nor is it an outright invasion of one's privacy. At its worst, it appears that Facebook execs have not been truthful about just how much of your personal data they actually share with marketers and advertisers. They have made some huge PR blunders, not least when CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared that "Privacy is dead," at the same time Google has blundered too . Yet the process for changing your privacy settings on Facebook is labyrinthian, not to mention that it's almost impossible to delete your account, so it's difficult to defend them. [If you are ready to delete your account here's how for reals.]

Let's put the white noise to one side for a minute and try and put this in perspective by starting with a simple premise. When using a web platform or web site you can give away as much personal information as you like, or as little. It's your choice. You can also back out and provide no information. It really is up to you. For instance, I can't remember how many of my female friends I have contacted on Facebook to ask why they would publicize their address and phone number on the platform. Stalkers anyone?

Now think about how many company web sites you have entered personal information in to. And not only personal information such as name, address, phone, D.O.B. but also credit card details - Amazon? Apple iTunes? Google? Your online bank? Mint? - do you use a grocery store discount card? How about a frequent flier plan with an airline?

I ask because all of the above have an awful lot of data about your spending habits and other mercantile activities. They share this rich and juicy data with marketers and advertisers. [Don't kid yourself into thinking that "well they say they won't" is a decent defense.] Then there are applications like Foursquare where we share our personal whereabouts. Once you give up your locational privacy why would you scream at Facebook about privacy? The Please Rob Me web site would be funny, if it wasn't funny...

It doesn't stop at Foursquare. What are you doing with that location-aware mobile device in your pocket..? Take a look at the EFF article On Locational Privacy and How to Avoid Losing it Forever - you may be shocked by what you read. Also, the Centre For Democracy & Technology has a good piece on Over Sharing and Location Awareness.

It's really a matter of personal responsibility and common sense. Facebook executives may, or may not, care about your personal "privacy" but we do know they want to be paid for letting you use the site for free - that's why one is bombarded with irrelevant advertising every time one visits. The data you provide, that in turn Facebook provides to marketers willing to pay for ads is what keeps the doors open.

Facebook is a business, so you should consider how much information you want to share with any business, not just Facebook.

In part 2 I will share my thoughts on the "idea of privacy" inspired by danah boyd's keynote speech at this year's SXSWi conference and Jonathen Frantzen, particularly his book of essays How To Be Alone. Stay tuned.

[Edit] 3 Ways to Keep Facebook Likes More Private via @WebTrends