Why Facebook’s new stuff is scary
(X posted from article I did for the DigitalLife Newsletter)
Privacy worries are something for conspiracy theorists and paranoid nerds, aren’t they? What does it mean for me, a normal person with not much to say to the world? Surely no one is all that interested in what’s going on in my life? If this is your thought process… you’re wrong.
Last month, Facebook unleashed something called “Open Graph”, a platform that shares your information with other sites so that these sites can tailor their services and offers to your personal interests. Such sites include Pandora, Yola, Microsoft and, well, 100 000 others (as of last week Tuesday).
There are many positive aspects to the service – it taps into an already-built database of your likes and dislikes and those of your friends. It also goes a long way towards creating what they call a Semantic Web – with everything connected to everything else, able to be categorised and indexed mechanically, as envisioned by the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee.
So what’s the problem?
Open Graph gives web developers access to your personal information. Even if you go through the complicated process of opting out, your information can still be shared through your friends. And that data can be stored on the site for longer than 24 hours. In order to grab your personal info, webdevs need only drop a single line of HTML into a website to search Facebook for information on users. This can be, as intended, really convenient when you go to a site and it automatically tailors its service for you. However, it can also be abused.
A new site called OpenBook was developed to create awareness of these possible abuses. It uses only the API that Facebook makes so easily available to allow you to search every facebook newsfeed for embarrassing information such as “cheat test” and “boss is an asshole”… and the results come up with profile pictures of the posters. Why don’t you try searching for that status you just posted? What happens if your boss or teacher or nemesis tries searching for something similar and stumbles upon yours? Do you really feel as safe saying what’s on your mind now?
Facebook vs Privacy
Facebook seems to have a thing against privacy. Actually, Facebook’s creator and CEO Mark Zuckerburg does. He follows a philosophy that privacy is an outdated concept, that the social norm is now to share everything. But as true as that may be, privacy amounts to more than that. It’s about safety, which is why various organisations, including the Congress and the Federal Trade Commission, have a problem with it.
Of course, this is because Facebook does not really want you to opt out. While you are opted in, you are making them money. As the Canadian Privacy Commission says, your data is a hot commodity. Facebook has faced enquiries over its apps before for this reason – because many of the surveys, quizzes and games on Facebook, developed by third parties, aim to get your personal data, collect it and sell it. And now third parties don’t even have to develop applications to obtain that information; you don’t even have to click the “approve” button anymore.
What does this mean for you? It means more spam, more catalogues, more advertising targeted specifically at you. It also means that, with that data freely available to the world, decisions are made about you without you even being asked. Employers, judges, teachers, all have access to every status update you make, every group you join. Is this really okay with you?
Forget about stalkers and horror stories of Facebook murders, the real worries are much more malignant.
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