The Facebook Privacy Problem

Regular readers may remember the this short article I wrote on how the information on the internet is going to be a problem for people in the future. Recently the online social networking site made some changes and people could easily see just how easily this information can be disseminated on the Internet. The change was followed by shock and revolt by Facebook users but the changes remain in place as of today. I wrote the following opinion for an online discussion list and thought blog readers may enjoy it as well.

As a Facebook user as well as a graduate student and computer professional the current controversy over the changes made by Facebook are of particular interest to me. My own experience and discussions with other members of the Internet generation leads me to believe that these users still do not see the “privacy light at the end of the tunnel“. Most users remain unaware of the risks associated with putting any kind of personal information on the internet and grossly misunderstand the ability of individuals and organizations to aggregate such data into profiles of users for anything from relatively benign marketing purposes to something more sinister such as identity theft.

The thing that’s really important to remember here is that the changes made to Facebook did not and have not made any information that was previously private available to the public. Clearly, this is the viewpoint of the Facebook team as can be read on their blog. In other words the only difference is that you are now presented with a list of all the recent changes your “friends” have made. Of course this information was available to you before, but you had to seek it out on each users’ page. Personally I find the feature to be quite a useful one and think it has been a long time in coming. In my opinion the usefulness of social networks such as this is to allow you to stay current with the lives and events of a great number of acquaintances quickly.

Where the problem comes in is that people have been hiding behind “security through obscurity” for some time. Most users don’t think twice about what information is available (to their friends) on their user page. Suddenly the information in thrust into the light and they are alarmed. Of course their have been newspaper stories around the country warning students that employers can and do look up prospective employees on the internee before hiring to see what kinds of people they are, but in my experience most students feel so removed from the employment process they aren’t concerned about this. Secondly, their is an incorrect perception that Facebook is a closed network. Because of this students feel free to post things they normally wouldn’t want “public”. Still others feel that they will be able to change or “clean” their pages before looking for a job. The problem with this is that I have no doubt this information is being crawled and archived by many people and could still be used against you in the future. Obviously alumni now employed in various field still have Facebook accounts and are typically quite accommodating when employers ask them to look up a prospective hire on Facebook. Still other users may be running bots through the network and collecting as much information as possible about as many people as possible for any number of reasons.

As mentioned by Alessandro in a recent message to the list there do exist a number of granular privacy controls which can be exercised within the Facebook environment. Few students take advantage of these tools as they fail to see the ramifications of having so much information public. My real concern is that this will soon blow over and people will go back to ignoring the implications of sharing so much data with the public. Even after several years of incidents being reported in the media there remains a problem with individuals and businesses understanding that once something is out on the Internet the cat is out of the bag. There’s no going back. By its very nature the Internet is a public place and is going to be crawled, indexed, cached and stored. It amazes me that people (especially those who have grown up with computers and the Internet) still fail to grasp this concept.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the implications of people sharing data on the Internet and certainly not the last. For more thoughts on how this might effect the ability of people to hold various jobs in the future or perhaps change our notions of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior I encourage you to read this short article I wrote on the topic back in March.

Obviously I don’t expect that people will remove all personal data from the Internet, nor do I think they should. Much of the usefulness of computers and the Internet springs from the ability to search vast databases of information. As a Facebook user and someone who has had a personal website for much longer than that I provide a lot of personal information about myself. The key here is for people to understand the ramifications of doing so and, most importantly, to think about what they say and do in public before they do it.


  1. Hi

    If you’re looking for a truely private blogging solution, check out Its a simple site, that allows you to create your own private group and just blog to the members of your group. No privacy issues.