Facebook's About-Face: Is Our Privacy for Sale?

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (31-Dec-2007)

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When the folks over at the social networking site LinkedIn added their "Who has viewed my profile?" feature, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. On the one hand, the feature allows you to see which LinkedIn users have viewed your profile, but on the other hand it can promote a sort of voyeuristic, obsessive compulsive need to see who's been checking you out. Are potential employers verifying your credentials? Is a disgruntled former employee, colleague, or friend constantly checking to see what you're up to? Are there hordes of data miners out to add the contents of your résumé onto some seedy marketing database? Is your Bizarro World doppelgänger stalking you?

Although users have control over what appears to other LinkedIn users—their name and title, only anonymous characteristics such as their industry and title, or nothing at all—there were still some early grumblings from privacy advocates. There's arguable merit to this type of tracking feature, and you can make a case for either side; but there's no doubt Facebook did a spectacular face plant with the introduction of its Beacon advertising system this past November.

Beacon tracks users' activities—what products they look at and what they buy—on certain third-party partner Web sites and sends this data back to Facebook. This information is then used for purposes of targeted advertisement and, more frighteningly, is shared among users' Facebook friends.

It seems Facebook neglected to consider that some users might see this so-called feature as an incredible invasion of their privacy. Not everyone wants their friends to know what they're doing on- or offline. What if someone went to an online bookstore and ordered books about fighting depression or coping with substance abuse? Do you think this is really something they would care to share with even their closest friends? To make matters worse, this data collecting occurred when users were not even signed onto Facebook or didn't even have a Facebook account.

What customers buy, when they bought it, which store they bought it from, and how much they paid for it is no one's business but their own. I don't think I would want to live in the world depicted in the movie Minority Report where a store's PA system greets customers by name at the door and knows their entire purchasing history at that store. While this is a marketer's and advertiser's dream, it can be a consumer nightmare.

LinkedIn and Facebook made similar mistakes: They both launched their respective features as opt-out rather than opt-in features. This means the features are activated by default, so if users didn't make a conscious effort to protect their privacy, they could have had their activities tracked without knowing it.

To its credit, however, Facebook admitted (eventually) to its mistake. The company was forced into action when it faced a barrage of criticism over privacy concerns. In his December 5th blog entry, creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote, "We've made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we've made even more with how we've handled them. We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it. While I am disappointed with our mistakes, we appreciate all the feedback we have received from our users."

"Feedback" in this case is probably a euphemism for throngs of pitchfork and torch wielding users. I find it difficult to believe that Facebook didn't realize that this was going create a stir. Were they that na´ve or did they want to sneak Beacon in and hope users will just see it as another feature?

Facebook is doing an about-face. They have taken steps to give users more control over what, if anything, Beacon collects. But should we simply roll our eyes and put this incident under the "what were they thinking" file, or is it another indication that the more advertising dollars that are at stake, the less control we have over what personal information is shared with others without our explicit consent?

Social networking sites would have us believe that these types of "features" are all for the benefit of the user, to provide them with a more customized and personalized experience. Sure, all's fun and games until you find a fiber-optic camera in your unmentionables drawer.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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