The Facebook privacy saga, continued

By IKU KAWACHI

It doesn’t even need an introduction, really.

Facebook is the largest, most visible and farthest-reaching social networking service (SNS) on the planet, with a reported 500 million active users and an annual revenue of $800 million. Despite already being in its seventh year, however — virtually an eternity on the Web — it still manages to garner headlines for one reason or another, whether it be facing the possibility of being banned in Turkey, a country with 22.5 million users of the service; becoming the focus of a much-discussed movie, one that has received rave reviews; or being targeted in campaigns against cyber-bullying.

Yet the one concern that continues to dwarf all other issues in the eyes of many Facebook users is privacy. As the service has evolved and seen explosive growth in user count, it has been forced to make changes to its privacy policy and how its service handles personal information on numerous occasions. Naturally, in the SNS industry, “personal information” not only refers to data such as dates of birth, phone numbers and e-mail and street addresses, but also multimedia like photos and videos.

Perhaps the most dramatic change came in February 2009, when Facebook announced sweeping changes to its Terms of Service that would allow it to use, modify, or sub-license any content a user had ever uploaded to Facebook. It added clauses that granted it additional such permissions, and omitted others that had protected the users’ rights to their content. The new policy was met with so much backlash, both from the mainstream media and its user audience, that it quickly reverted to its original policy and launched a forum that allowed users to openly discuss the “Facebook Principles” and “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” documents over a 30-day period. Additional changes came this May, when Facebook made its privacy settings much more customizable and easier to navigate under strong public pressure.

Now founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has unveiled the latest privacy changes to the service: the launch of “Download Your Information”, a tool to download any and all of one’s personal data including Wall posts, status updates, and photos with one click; the introduction of a “Dashboard” to monitor how third-party applications on Facebook are using one’s information; and a complete overhaul of the “Groups” feature that will now allow users to share things with “small groups of friends … in a private space.”

Even when the usual caveats related to the practicality or ease of use of the new features are put aside, though, what’s worrying is that despite all of these supposed improvements, Facebook still faces serious concerns regarding its privacy policy and breaches thereof. An Oct. 18 special investigation by The Wall Street Journal found that “many of the most popular ‘apps’ on the social-networking site … have been transmitting identifying information … to dozens of advertising and Internet tracking companies.” Other publications followed suit with their own reports, finding that third-party apps often exposed user identification numbers (UIDs) and other sensitive information.

Facebook responded swiftly, saying that “press concerns have exaggerated the implications of sharing a UID” but nevertheless vowing to immediately explore possible solutions, including encrypting information passed through application URLs. While Facebook’s prompt, diligent approach in responding to privacy issues such as this one is to be praised, the fact that our own personal information is floating around in cyberspace — at risk of being traded from service to service or application to application at any given time— should be a source of concern for anyone.

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