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Facebook: Eroding Privacy and Destroying Trust

If you logged onto your Facebook (FB) account yesterday, you would have received a notification from the company, informing you that their privacy restrictions have changed.  It would have directed you to reexamine your settings and possibly alter them to conform to FB’s latest recommendations.  While members might maintain restrictions in many areas, the new privacy policy mandates that some previously private information is now publicly available.  This includes: names, friend lists, profile pictures, your city, gender, networks, and fan pages. 

The social networking company claims to be “helping everyone find and connect with each other by keeping some information … publicly available.” Supporters of the change say that it is difficult to find people without more details when many share the same name, and they say the site should be about sharing information and being open to others.  However, not everyone is buying that line of reasoning.  Some argue FB is pushing people to make more information public in order to compete with Twitter or somehow increase the marketability of the site. Either way, there are some fundamental and serious privacy issues at stake. 

Privacy advocates warn that weakening privacy standards hurts those who are not prepared or tech savvy enough to manipulate their security settings. Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology says, “Granual controls are great and we support them, but this very well could drive less privacy on Facebook.”  The ACLU of Northern California (ACLUNC) was able to do a comparison of default settings both before and after the transition.  Disturbingly enough, they found that FB is recommending that people release far more personal information in nearly every category.  For example, according to the ACLUNC, your family and relationship information, personal posts, and photo albums should be made available to everyone. 

Due to FB’s popularity (over 350 million are now using the site), there is a wide range of people accessing and posting information.  While some members will possess sensitivity to privacy concerns, others will not be aware of what information they are posting for all to see.  It is the latter group that may be hardest hit when a job is denied or a college application rejected.  FB does have a privacy page devoted to explaining their latest changes, but not all users are going to spend the time learning the intricacies of altering this setting here or that setting there. 

And while members are unknowingly releasing information that would be an identity theft’s dream, there is another troubling issue: being found.  As much as collaboration and openness are principles worth supporting, there are some people out there who prefer the choice of anonymity.  Whether they wanted to keep a low profile and connect with only a select group of people or they were attempting to hide from potential or real stalkers, the new rules erode at the security they formerly enjoyed.  And of course, there are the parents who use their children’s images for the profile picture.  With profile pictures available to anyone, using your children’s pictures may not be as wise a decision. 

As a member of Facebook, I previously thought their privacy settings were on the mark as they allowed considerable control over myriad parts of my profile.  The site was a great place for lively discourse and debate.  However, this week’s Facebook debacle has taught me a lesson I probably should have known.  When you do not own a web site, you are basically at the mercy of the people who do, notwithstanding their claims of respecting users’ privacy.  Privacy agreements change, and sometimes they change with little warning, leaving people exposed.  Facebook’s decision to force away some of our privacy will indeed result in more sterile pages, wiped clean of politics or other controversial subjects (at least where fan pages are concerned). And if we’re prudent, we’ll all think twice about what we write or post on even the supposedly locked down parts of our profiles.  As Facebook has revealed, control over our own information is an illusion. 

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I can understand why people are getting upset about facebook recent privacy "violations" but really in the end it all comes down to the user. Facebook isn't forcing you to signup and hand over your personal information or post pictures/statuses that could come back and bite you when you're looking for a job. My basic rule and what I tell my friends is that if you wouldn't do it out in public, don't do it on facebook. But on the note of privacy and the business side of things, facebook and other social media sites need to be invasive if they want to serve relevent ads. For example I recently was searching for ways to unlock iphone and saw a relevent ad for it on facebook, obviously that's no coincidence but a necessary evil in order to serve ads.