Privately Exposed: New Facebook Privacy Settings Betrays Users

It wouldn’t be particularly unusual to admit I have just emerged from a prolonged time-sucking session on Facebook. The curious thing is that this time I’ve not been engaged in commenting on statuses, tagging photos or sharing LOLCats links on the social networking site, but instead focused on making my profile private – or as private as Facebook now allows.

“Aaron is… exposed.”

By now you’ve no doubt heard Facebook rolled-out new privacy settings on 9 December 2009, some five months after it was announced they were on the way. After addressing privacy blunders like the Beacon marketing initiative in 2007, and the altered “Terms of Service” agreement last February, I was optimistic these new settings would really provide users with “even more control of their information,” as CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised.

Instead, the new settings switched profiles to public with “Everyone” or “Friends of friends” defaults. Without even providing a choice to opt-out or even an option to pay a “private” membership fee, Facebook switched Darrins and expected us not to really take notice. The transitions weren’t clearly detailed by Facebook and unless you took convoluted measures to ensure otherwise, all your friends, networks, links, posts and perhaps embarrassing or compromising photos to be shared amongst but a few friends were opened up for the world to see.

I have navigated the networking universes of Friendster, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter as well as Facebook, so I’m not exactly a noob when it comes to managing my online presence. When the new privacy settings took effect, I immediately began re-privatizing myself on Facebook. However, while researching this topic, I discovered much of my Facebook life remained exposed despite my best efforts in December. Only after reading what amounts to investigative reportage by writer Kashmir Hill of “True/Slant” “Did Facebook break the law when it changed privacy settings?”, 17 December 2009) and New York City-gossip site (“Facebook’s Great Betrayal” by Ryan Tate, 14 December 2009) did I realize how “out there” I was.

“Aaron is … enraged.”

The new privacy settings are so unclear – and correcting them counter-intuitive — that even Zuckerberg’s profile (including goofy pics and his event calendar) were exposed for a time. Even now, no matter how much digging through tiers of “Privacy”, “Application” and “Account” settings, there is no discernible way to completely hide friend lists and profile photos, or to prevent strangers from friending you.

So far the fallout from the new Facebook settings include publicized account deletions or suspensions by journalists, criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. I highly doubt any of this will affect Facebook much. Regardless of the complaints, the Facebook “exposure policy” will probably remain in effect because it is unlikely more than 350 million users will abandon the site – at least until they have something better to jump to.

The reason for the changes is simple enough in design: drive page views, open up more pages to search engines, attract advertisers, grow, increase profits. Also: destroy Twitter.

Twitter is the main rival to Facebook, but the success of the micro-blog is that it’s based on getting a thrill from intentionally flashing cyberspace — and trying to collect as many people as possible who want to take a peek at your tweeting goods. Twitter is supposed to be public, and you’re sounding off in the same sphere as celebrities and politicians.

By providing more info about its users, Facebook has a better shot of defeating the Twitter “fail whale” mascot which has become its Moby Dick. Yet by going all Captain Ahab – obsessed primarily with the pursuit of more cash instead of with user desires — the company, as Gawker aptly states, “has, in short, turned evil.”

“Aaron is… betrayed.”

A friend recently said of the changes that I just shouldn’t “take it too seriously and don’t put anything on it that you wouldn’t want your mother to see.” I don’t have anything to hide aside from some really awful haircuts and sweater choices from the past, but no matter what I choose to host on my profile, should I be denied any expectation of profile privacy? Essentially, I’m now ceding the option to have a private conversation, even if it is a conference call amongst friends.

I have more or less succeeded in maintaining Facebook as an intimate private party. Over the past few years, I’ve made poor choices and let the wrong people in to take a look around at my place, but those were my choices. Still, I could remain pretty unlisted — until the new policies were launched under intentionally deceptive circumstances.

To be clear, Facebook is a company that provides a free profile to anyone who wants it. As long as it clearly details its practices, it is allowed to share information with pretty much whomever it chooses.

However, as a user, I have the right to board up the place and leave. I don’t know if I will just yet, but I don’t feel comfortable in my online home any longer. Instead of giving in to a time-suck out of fun, I’m on guard and scanning for security breaches, and frustrated that Facebook has become two-faced.