Facebook, Privacy, Public Opinion and Pitchforks

May 10, 2010 at 7:02 pm 5 comments

As just about everyone is already aware, Facebook has been up to a bunch of big brotherly stuff lately, including “instant personalization” — making your identity and data available to 3rd party sites you visit, arguing to treat ToS violations as criminal violations, and forcing you to make your “interests” public (or delete them). Overall, it looks like they’re making a bold move to take control of everyone’s identity and connections, privacy be damned.

The entirely predictable effect of this has been that everything the company now does is being viewed with extreme suspicion. The pitchforks have been sharpened, and the mob gets set off on almost any excuse. In the last week, one somewhat questionable feature, one minor bug and one utter non-event have each been reported as sinister privacy disasters:
  1. The questionable feature was linking your statuses to “connections” pages. The outrage was based on the meme “if your status contains the word FBI then the FBI will have a record of it,” which appears to have started here. That article is full of hyperbole and understandably appears to have been widely misunderstood to be claiming that even private statuses appear on Connection pages (they don’t). There’s really nothing new in terms of the visibility of your statuses: Facebook already had real-time search for public statuses, and the only difference is that someone can now click on the “FBI” page instead of having to type in “FBI” into the search box.
  2. The minor bug was that Facebook started listing Connect-enabled websites you visit in the “Applications” tab in your privacy settings. The sites didn’t get your identity, any of your data, nor did they have priveleges to post to your wall. The fact that you visited them was not visible to anyone else. No actual harm was done. And yet an article titled Facebook’s new features secretly add apps to your profile alleged all of these things without making any real effort to check with Facebook. Facebook quickly fixed the bug and contacted the authors, and they updated the story, but it did little to quell the rumors which took on a life of their own.
  3. The non-issue was Facebook leaking your IP address in email notifications. This is normal behavior: most webmail providers, except gmail, put the sender’s IP into the message header as a spam-prevention technique. This kicked up another shitstorm.

In spite of these unfair accusations, it is hard for me to feel any sympathy for the beleaguered company. This is how public opinion works, and they can’t claim not to have seen it coming. As this fantastic visualization by Matt McKeon shows, Facebook has been on a long and consistent path to make all of your information public, essentially pulling a giant bait-and-switch on their users. They stepped up the pace recently, asked their users to give up too much too fast, and something just snapped.

I think Facebook underestimated the extent to which privacy correlates with trust. They were forgiven for Beacon and other problems in the past, but after the most recent series of privacy violations, it became clear that these were not missteps but deliberate actions. I believe that Facebook’s relationship with its users has changed fundamentally, and isn’t going to mend any time soon. Perhaps Facebook’s reckoning is that they are now big enough that it doesn’t matter any more. That remains to be seen.

On a personal note, someone pretty high up at Facebook emailed me a couple of months ago (although “not in an official capacity”) to have a discussion about privacy issues with some of their upcoming product launches. Unfortunately I was traveling at the time, and when I got back they were no longer interested. I guess by then it was too close to f8 and all the important decisions had been made. I can’t help wondering if the outcome might have been different if I’d been able to meet with them — perhaps they might have eased off just a little bit on their world-domination plans and avoided the straw that broke the camel’s back. But I suspect that that’s just wishful thinking, given that the imperative for their current push in all likelihood came from the very top.

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Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

Is Making Public Data “More Public” a Privacy Violation? Yet Another Identity Stealing Bug. Will Creeping Normalcy be the Result?

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. anonymous  |  May 10, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    re. the FBI example : while a CS scientist would say nothing has changed, it reminds me of danay boyd’s thesis : just because people have something publicly available, that doesn’t mean they are comfortable with making it public. The new pages made publicly available information public – which is still a huge step.

    • 2. Arvind  |  May 10, 2010 at 9:14 pm

      Valid point, and something I’ve written about before (and will address again soon). But my point here is that the outrage was based on false information (that private statuses appear on public pages).

      Also, while I agree that there’s a difference between real-time search and the connections pages, I don’t consider it “huge.”

  • 3. anonymous  |  May 11, 2010 at 12:52 am

    You forgot to mention the bug that let people see their friends chat windows and notifications via the “preview” feature within the privacy setting.

    • 4. Arvind  |  May 11, 2010 at 12:56 am

      This post was not meant to be an exhaustive list of facebook privacy problems.

  • 5. Passer By  |  May 13, 2010 at 7:45 am

    Whenever the gmail and your ip address topic comes, it’s somewhat missed that gmail *does* send your ip address for messages sent via smtp. They only omit it for webmail.


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About 33bits.org

I’m an associate professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

This is a blog about my research on breaking data anonymization, and more broadly about information privacy, law and policy.

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