Internet Privacy? Surely You Jest…

Ever since the social web revolution of the past few years the issue of privacy has been thrust into the limelight repeatedly with the same results every time: people whine and complain yet nothing really changes. Unfortunately the majority never end up realising that anything you put on the Internet can be considered private, just as anything you left out on your front lawn would be. Still people continue to use the service and put increasingly inappropriate information up causing sites like Fail-Book to materialize that exploit everyone’s misplaced trust in this service.

Don’t get me wrong though, I have a Facebook account with quite a lot of information on it. However for the most part the majority of it is locked out to the wider world, but I’m under no illusions that I’m a social engineering attack away from one (or more) of my friends being compromised and my full account being laid bare for whomever was after it. That doesn’t worry me however as the data I have on there is nothing a quick Google or thumb through the Whitepages wouldn’t pick up. I also have a damn good level of trust in my friends to not put anything stupid up there and three years of use of the service hasn’t seen this trust broken. It would seem however that I’m in the minority.

This still doesn’t detract from the fact that some of Facebook’s policies are a ass-backwards. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and CEO, has gone on record recently saying that privacy is no longer considered “normal”, something which I’m finding hard to swallow:

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive of Facebook has said that people no longer have an expectation of privacy thanks to increasing uptake of social networking.

Speaking at the Crunchie Awards in San Francisco this weekend, the 25 year-old web entrepreneur said: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.”

Zuckerberg went on to add that the rise of social media reflects the changing attitudes among the general public, saying that this radical change has happened in the space of five years.

We have a term here in the IT and engineering industry called eating your own dogfood. When an organisation provides a service it speaks volumes when they use the service themselves. Zuckerberg, to his credit, does use Facebook however it would seem that he has a different expectation of privacy to the one he preaches. I say this because recently Facebook enforced all users to update their privacy settings, with them oriented towards exposing more information to the wider world. It was a valid move for them from a business perspective (more public data = more visibility) however when their own CEO ends up blowing his profile wide open you have to question how the normal user will fair. Zuckerberg stated that it was deliberate, but his actions say otherwise (I.E. it’s now back the way it was). You can see why I don’t swallow the tripe that Zuckerberg is peddling, he’s saying one thing and doing another.

For some reason the social web has made us incresingly trusting of large organisations providing us something for free. In fact it’s the norm and any organisation attempting something on the web that dare charges for it is only months away from being usurped by some young upstart in a garage who does the same thing for gratis. This means now that most of the free applications on the web don’t seek revenue directly from their consumers, they get it from the data that their application harvests. The price you pay for free services is that organisation knowing some very intimate details about you.

You might not think there’s much value in knowing that you loved that book you read last week or that you and a couple friends are all fans of the same celebrity but to marketers and product researchers this stuff is a drug. Facebook’s advertising system is so detailed that you can narrow the demographic you target by age, gender, location and even sexual preferences. It doesn’t stop there either, with them tracking basically every activity on Facebook:

The Rumpus: On your servers, do you save everything ever entered into Facebook at any time, whether or not it’s been deleted, untagged, and so forth?

Facebook Employee: That is essentially correct at this moment. The only reason we’re changing that is for performance reasons. When you make any sort of interaction on Facebook — upload a photo, click on somebody’s profile, update your status, change your profile information —

If you have a product with a known demographic your advertising budget will go a lot further if you can just target them, rather than say posting a billboard on a highway. Facebook isn’t the only one doing this, our friendly search giant Google’s advertising network has been using such demographic capturing technology for years now to better target their Adsense and Adwords programs.

So while I won’t go on a crusade and say that everyone should stop using these services I will say this: manage your expectations appropriately. Facebook et al are great tools for staying in touch with friends (and finding long lost old ones) but if you wouldn’t put it on your front lawn you shouldn’t put it on Facebook. If you can’t trust your friends not to put something on there then it would be best not to be on there in the first place. Whilst I would lament the death of such humourous sites like Fail Book it would be a small price to pay for the populace at large wising up to the fact that there’s no such thing as a free lunch in this world.

But then again I’m probably asking too much. (Seems I’m getting more and more cynical in my old age ;))

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