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How Facebook Betrayed Users and Undermined Online Privacy

Facebook has collected loads of private information about their users -- information that is being sold to marketers.

In just six years Facebook has crossed the threshold of 500 million users. In the past nine months it has doubled in size and is now the number one most visited Web site in the world, surpassing Google. Facebook’s motto is “Making the world open and connected,” where a lone voice can have a powerful impact, as evidenced this year by one activist’s post on Facebook that sparked a demonstration of 12 million people against the Revolutionary Forces of Columbia (FARC), which had been terrorizing Colombian citizens for years.

But along with its policy of openness and potential for social change, Facebook has repeatedly come under fire for its lax policies toward the privacy of its members.

Behind the Wall

Facebook members have a “wall” where they can post pictures and information (essentially their own web page), chat with each other, and read the latest on everyone in “The Feed.” But behind the wall, users are creating a cumulative data repository of all the relationships in the entire world and the intimate details of everyone’s lives. The databases and algorithms employed at Facebook to store, crunch, and make inferences about you are far greater holders of data than any government agency.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has often claimed to be a champion of privacy and promised, “we will never sell your information.” Nevertheless, many users were shocked to discover late last year that their names and profile pictures, along with basic information about them, had been made public. At the heart of the storm is not the complexity of controls on Facebook, although that was an issue. The anger was about Facebook sharing personal information in new ways without prior permission from its users.

Ironically, Facebook has made an international impact it had not intended. German officials launched legal proceedings against Facebook over its policy of saving information about people who aren’t members of the social network but have various details posted on it thanks to their friends on Facebook. Following an investigation by the Canadian Privacy Commissioner, Facebook implemented new privacy policies. In the U.S., members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission called for more regulation and Zuckerberg was all but forced to agree to more privacy controls. In June, four U.S. senators wrote to Zuckerberg telling him they were concerned about Facebook’s privacy practices.

The Beacon

Fastbook first aroused controversy on its violations of privacy with its use of web beacons. Web beacons are tiny image files that, when combined with small text files called “cookies,” will track your activities on other sites and automatically send information about you, including keystrokes, to the originating Web site. Facebook designed them to broadcast back to users and their friends what actions Facebook members took on participating Web sites. Users were not informed that data on their activities at other sites was flowing back to Facebook, nor were they given the option to block that information from being transmitted.

Lawsuits were filed, and even MoveOn moved into the issue. Facebook announced that it would allow people to opt out of the use of beacons, and Zuckerberg apologized for the controversy. Facebook ultimately settled a class action lawsuit and announced it would completely shut down the beacon program.

Instant Personalization

But the storm was only beginning to build. The controversy rose to a roar in May, centered on unilateral and sudden changes to Facebook policies that severely limited what users could keep private. The Instant Personalization pilot program that Facebook created spins users’ personal interests into public Web sites that are searchable and available for the world to see, and share their data with other Web sites such as Yelp, Microsoft and Pandora.

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