Privacy furore forces partial climb-down from Facebook
Social network faces up to criticism
Facebook's revised privacy settings have been almost universally panned by users and security watchers, but at least one group is happy - internet marketers.
A blog used by Facebook developers and marketers shows the group relishing the prospect that a lot more information is about to be shared. The only problem, for this group at least, is how to make use of this information.
Facebook rolled out new privacy settings and a configuration tool this week. Everyone who logged onto the social networking site from Wednesday onwards was prompted to update their settings, something as few as 15 per cent of user have ever done in the past.
The changes were touted as a simplification of earlier underused controls, with settings of offering up information only to friends, or to friends of friends or to everyone. But by default the controls were set to "open to everyone", even for categories of data users of the social networking site had previously labelled as private.
The automatic change to more open-settings, if accepted, means that search engines would be able to catalogue and offer up the information to all and sundry. Once exposed this data can never be reclaimed as private.
Facebook began consulting on these changes in July, but few saw that it was heading towards share everything as a default, with the honourable exception of Cambridge University's Computer Lab.
Another privacy issue with the revamp was that it made it impossible for users to hide their friend list from being globally viewable. Cambridge University security researchers warn that a person's network of friends (AKA social graph) is arguably the most sensitive information the site holds and its exposure enables a gamut of potential scams.
"The threats here are more fundamental and dangerous - unexpected inference of sensitive information, cross-network de-anonymisation, socially targeted phishing and scams," writes Cambridge University researcher Joseph Bonneau.
"It’s incredibly disappointing to see Facebook ignoring a growing body of scientific evidence and putting its social graph up for grabs. It will likely be completely crawled fairly soon by professional data aggregators, and probably by enterprising researchers soon after. The social graph is powerful view into who we are — Mark Zuckerberg said so himself — and it’s a sad day to see Facebook cynically telling us we can’t decide for ourselves whether or not to share it."
On Friday, possibly in response to Cambridge Uni's critique, Facebook made it possible to hide friend lists on the site. Cambridge researchers remain highly critical of the "well-hidden opt-out" and the all or nothing approach to either making the list invisible or viewable to all and sundry. The previous approach - making the friends list viewable only to other friends by default was far better than the "ham-handed" changes, the academics argue.
Privacy activists including the ACLU and EFF and numerous security firms have also criticised Facebook's changes. It's hard to remember such a universally reviled change. The only precedent that comes to mind is Facebook's controversial Beacon advertising system.
The strength of opposition was such that Facebook eventually abandoned Beacon and it's tempting to speculate the social network will be forced down the same path with its privacy changes. Viewed in this context, the partial back-down on friends lists - ham-handed as it might be - is the first step on a long climb-down. ®
Title for a comment that is yet to be written
They have a vested interest in keeping the advertisers happy, ergo they will do things like:
- fail to educate their users properly
- hide meaningful privacy controls
- hide the ability to REALLY delete your account if/when you decide to get a life
At least they responded reasonably quickly
I was pretty miffed to find that my 'friends list' had suddenly become public in the global search, with no way to stop that other than removing myself from the search results (which kindof renders a social networking site pretty meaningless). The fact that within 24 hours they've added an option to block that is pretty good - although one does wonder why they didn't beta test this on a small section of the Facebook community first.
Fact is, I'm happy to share the stuff I choose to post *with people who I explicitly add as connections*. However, I don't want any personal details appearing in the public search results other than my name and a single photo (of my choosing) that may or may not identify me.
Oh, and to the inevitable commentards who'll no doubt shout "if you don't want it public, don't put it there", shut it.
Let's hope they learn their lesson and next time trial the thing first before imposing it on a couple of hundred million people....
Don't call me Shirely...
The issue as far as I'm concerned, is the way that it felt they were trying to force you into making previously 'Friend Only' content public by defaulting all your settings that way. It seemed pretty cynical to me and I subsequently removed all my content from the site.
I'll still use it to send messages and update people on the colour of my underwear however.