SAN JOSE, Calif. — When Facebook announced at its f8 conference last month that it is making changes to its giant social networking site, I didn’t pay close enough attention.
I was aware the company was changing the way its site interacted with others on the Web. I also understood after logging into the site that Facebook was altering the way it displayed some of users’ personal information, including their educational background and interests.
But I overlooked the significance of those changes until last week, when a co-worker made me realize what they meant, and just how cavalier Facebook is with the privacy of its users.
As I’ve mentioned in past columns, I’m a big fan of Pandora Internet radio. Generally, if I’m listening to music on the radio, I’m tuned into one of my stations on Pandora, not a traditional broadcast radio channel. I’ve shared my stations with my wife and a few family members. But I never intended to share them — or my listening habits, including songs I’ve “liked” — with anyone else.
Thanks to Facebook’s changes, I suddenly was sharing them with a lot more people. My colleague showed me that when he went to Pandora and signed into Facebook using a new widget on the music site, he was able to see everything that I’d been listening to lately, including what songs I’ve given a thumbs-up. And it wasn’t just my Pandora activity he had access to. He could check in on the Pandora habits of any one of his friends on Facebook who also had a Pandora account.
After seeing this demonstration, alarm bells went off in my head over the privacy threats that Facebook’s changes pose.
It’s not that I particularly care if my colleague can see what music I’ve been listening to lately. But I have 635 Facebook “friends,” many of them little more than acquaintances or simply people I’ve met online. There’s no reason all of them should know about my Pandora activity or about some of the more personal details of my life that I’ve posted on Facebook. That’s why I’ve made a point in the past to adjust my privacy settings on Facebook to share only certain information with particular contacts.
Unfortunately, this Facebook link on Pandora is probably just a first step. If Facebook can persuade Pandora to share my music list with my “friends,” what’s to stop Facebook from signing similar deals that might alert those same “friends,” which include my editors and readers, when I’m searching for a job on Monster.com, what articles I’m reading on the Web or when I contact a financial institution about a car loan?
It’s astonishing how much information Facebook now considers “public” and is sharing with its marketing partners — even if you can navigate Facebook’s confusing settings menus to try to hide such information from your personal Facebook connections.
Facebook now considers itself free to share with marketing partners not just your name and photograph, but your current city, gender, networks, complete list of friends, your likes and interests, and profile information such as where you grew up, where you went to school and where you’ve worked. Worse, marketing partners can get access to that now “public” information via your friends.
So even if you don’t use Yelp, Yelp can glean all kinds of details about you if one of your Facebook friends uses the site and logs in with his or her Facebook credentials.
Facebook representatives did not respond to requests for comment. But company officials have said that the changes are meant to help make it easier for users to share the information that they already want to share. And company officials have argued that the changes improve privacy by providing users more detailed descriptions of how their data might be used.
But this is not Facebook’s first privacy brouhaha. The latest changes are reminiscent of when Facebook last year changed its terms of service and sparked a dispute over who owned the information provided by users to the site. It’s also reminiscent of the company’s Beacon fiasco in 2007, when it let marketing partners such as eBay, Fandango and CitySearch inform Facebook users what their friends were doing on those sites.
The company quickly backtracked from both of those changes after drawing fire from users and privacy advocates. But the fact that the company is back to its old tricks clearly demonstrates its disdain for users’ privacy.
Facebook users can take steps to limit what information the site shares with others. But the control Facebook now gives them is very simplistic. In terms of my activity on Pandora, I can choose to allow all my Facebook contacts to see what I’ve been listening to — or none of them. There’s nothing in between.
Similarly, I can block particular Facebook users who visit my profile page from seeing information about my hometown or where I went to school. But they — and marketers — can still get such details about me by visiting the Facebook “pages” of those particular places or interests — or by going through my Facebook friends. If I want no one to have access to that information, my only choice is to remove it completely from my profile.
Facebook users and privacy advocates are again complaining about the changes. Maybe that activism will force Facebook to backtrack yet again.
But given the company’s track record, I’m going to think long and hard about what I share with the site in the future, as well as with its partner sites.
PROTECTING YOURSELF ON FACEBOOK:
Blocking third-party sites: On Pandora, Yelp and Microsoft"s new Docs.com site, users can log in with their Facebook password and see what their Facebook friends are doing on those sites. Blocking that access involves going to the “privacy settings” area in your Facebook “account” menu, then going to the “Applications and Websites” area, and then clicking on the “Edit setting” button next to “Instant Personalization Pilot Program.” Click on the box at the bottom of that screen so it is no longer checked. Facebook will ask you if you really want to do this — tell them you do. You might also have to go to the partner websites and change your privacy settings, asking them not to link your account with Facebook.
Limiting interests: Facebook is asking users through a dialogue box they see when they log into the site what pages relating to their personal interests and background they want to link to. By default, all of the pages are checked. You can uncheck particular pages — the link to your hometown, say, or where you went to college. But if you do, such information is removed completely from your profile.
Restricted views: If you choose to keep a particular interest or bit of background information on your site, you can limit which of your contacts can see that data. (Note: Some of these options are being rolled out to users.) You again go to the “Privacy Settings” area of the Facebook account menu. By clicking there on “Friends, Tags and Connections,” you get a list of categories of information about you, including friends, education and activities. By default the information is shared with everyone who visits the site, but you can restrict that by clicking on the button next to each category and selecting particular groups you want to share it with, such as just your Facebook friends or your particular network. But even if you choose to restrict which contacts see that data, Facebook still considers much of it public and will share it with its marketing partners.
Less likes: Even outside of Facebook’s announced partners, it’s working with other sites such as CNN.com. If they are simultaneously signed into Facebook, users of those sites can see links to stories that their friends are sharing or “liking.” Those sites also can get access through Facebook to all the information Facebook considers public, including your name, picture, friends list and biographical details. You can opt out of such sharing, but you have to do so by going to each site and changing your settings one-by-one. On CNN, for example, you can click on the “What’s this?” link in the Facebook book on the homepage. That will take you to a dialogue box that links to your “settings” on the site. A link at the bottom of the next page allows you to disable CNN’s connection to Facebook.
Source: Mercury News research