Facebook Graph Search: Privacy issues….

thumbs-downI wrote yesterday about Facebook’s new ‘Graph Search’ system – in particular, about the way in which it is intended to convince people to put more and better data onto the system, and to lock them and businesses further into the Facebook system. What I didn’t talk about much was privacy…. not because there aren’t privacy issues with the new system, but more because there are so many privacy issues that it’s hard to know where to start.

One of the most interesting things is that as a part of the launch, Mark Zuckerberg has been very keen to stress that privacy is built into the system, even releasing information suggesting that the reason he went with Bing rather than Google for the web-search part of the service is that Google weren’t ‘privacy-friendly enough’ for him – see this piece in the Guardian. Why did he do that? Well, in one way I’m glad he did because it shows that he knows that people care about privacy, and that Facebook doesn’t exactly have the greatest reputation about privacy, to put it mildly. However, I’m far from convinced that what he’s been saying means very much – because the essence of Facebook Graph Search makes privacy very, very hard to achieve.

There are many things to mention – I can’t even get close to covering them all in one post. I’ll start with the very purpose of the system. Zuckerberg gave an example of a possible search: “people who like fencing and live in Palo Alto”. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to turn that into something distinctly creepy: “Single women who live in Palo Alto, work in Menlo Park and ‘like’ public transportation.” You can take it a lot further than that – which is why many commentators suggest that the system could be a stalker’s dream. Facebook already allows things that point in that direction: the scrutiny of other peoples’ profiles is one of the points of the system. Graph Search takes that to another level…

Secondly, the idea of the ‘built-in privacy’ that Zuckerberg talked about is that ‘stuff’ is only searchable if you’ve let friends see it anyway. There are big problems with that. Firstly, it relies on people understanding and using Facebook’s notoriously over complex privacy settings – which is quite something to rely on. Secondly, it assumes that if you’re willing to let your friends see or know something, then you’re willing to let it be aggregated, analysed, searched, sorted and so forth… which is of course what Facebook do anyway, but I would be very surprised if many Facebook users realise this. For that, and other reasons, I suppose we should welcome Graph Search – it demonstrates graphically what Facebook actually does with your data.

Thirdly, Zuckerberg made the point that photos and location information would be part of Graph Search – again, something that we should all have known, but I’m not sure people have fully understood. Combine this with facial recognition, and with the new smartphone Facebook apps that will automatically post photos you take with your camera onto Facebook, complete with location stamp, and you get a whole new scale of possible intrusion. Add this to the stalking capabilities noted above, and you’ve got quite a tool…

The point with a lot of this is that it’s all becoming the default – which is clearly the intention. As I noted in my previous post, Graph Search will work best if you ‘give’ Facebook all your information – and Facebook is providing the tools to let you give them it all. Moreover, they’re making it easier to give that information than not to give that information. They want all your data… and not just to give you a better service. They want it because they can use it to make more money…

….which brings me to the final privacy point. Zuckerberg makes the point again and again that in some ways you are in control of privacy, by using your privacy settings. You decide who sees what. However, that’s not really true at all. You may decide which other users get to see which bits of your data – but Facebook gets to see it all. Facebook gets to analyse it, to profile you through it, to effectively share it with its partners, to use it to categorise you for advertisers, or for others pretending to be advertisers. You may have more privacy from other people – but to Facebook, you are transparent, and have no privacy at all. Graph Search doesn’t really change that – but it should make it clearer that it is the case, and what some of the implications are.

I wrote over the holiday season my ‘Ten Reasons to Leave Facebook’. For me, Graph Search adds an eleventh – and makes some of the other ten even clearer than before. It’s not going to convince me to re-join Facebook. Quite the opposite: it makes it crystal clear to me that I was right to leave when I did.

10 thoughts on “Facebook Graph Search: Privacy issues….

  1. Wow I had no idea about this. More reason to be anti-facebook. Have been thinking a lot over the past week about today’s current generation-teenagers and children, will be growing up thinking this narcissistic posting and photo posing is a normal past time. For me and my generation-I think we’ve loved the novelty of facebook, then realised that we don’t actually want so many aspects of our lives free for all to see. I’m over the novelty, in fact over it altogether!

  2. This seems to be a common theme as Facebook comes out with more and more features over the years. Privacy concerns continue to grow, while Zuckerberg speaks to new and improved privacy settings here. It appears that there is a large gap between what each side understands and knows to be true. Communication definitely needs to increase so that both Facebook and the users are better aware. I can sympathize with the previous post in saying that early adopters and people who have had Facebook for a while and even as kids, are really gonna be hurt by this feature. There may be a generation of the digital age who learn the hard way that the ink of the internet is permanent.

  3. […] Ent mugavusega kaasnevad ka ohud. Sõprade jagamine rühmadesse võimaldab küll pealtnäha piirata jagatava info nähtavust, kuid sellegipoolest on kogu informatsioon teenusepakkujal olemas. Mõni aeg tagasi kirjutati, kuidas Mark Zuckerbergi õe “privaatne” pilt oli Facebookist Internetti lekkinud. Samuti käivad kuulujutud, et ammu siitilmast lahkunud inimesed olevat Facebookis postitusi “laikinud”. Sääraste anomaaliate valguses tasub ilmselt olla privaatsuse küsimustes tähelepanelik ja mitte jagada kraami, mille avalikuks tulek piinlikkust valmistab. Isegi kui Mark Zuckerberg ise teisiti arvab. […]

  4. Hi Paul,
    Nice analysis of Facebook and the privacy issues around it. It’s obvious that Facebook has recently become more of an advertising than social media platform and yes, we should watch out for our privacy, but the things you wrote here, I had no idea about. It’s actually very interesting to observe how the online giants (Google for example) are copying each other steps. Just think of Google’s latest ‘Shared endorsement’. Sounds familiar? Yeah, Facebook was there first. I’m scared to see what will come next.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s