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.

Is sharing natural? Is privacy?

To someone like me, who works in the field of privacy, Facebook and similar services have always represented a challenge. Pretty much every time Mark Zuckerberg gets up on his feet to make another announcement, I find my stomach churning, and my mind turning. When he suggests that privacy is no longer a social norm, when he tells us that we all want to share more, when he implies that Facebook does what we want it to do, and that anyone who’s at all concerned about what it does is an old stick-in-the-mud or a luddite, I always wonder, just for a moment, if he might be right. Is privacy an outdated concept, a kind of social construction that has outlived its purpose? Is openness and sharing how we’re ‘meant’ to live? Is Facebook about liberating us, allowing us to be how we’ve always wanted to be, how we naturally want to be?

I wonder that for a few moments every time. I wondered it when the new features on Facebook were launched a week or two back. I wondered it when the mini-furore over Facebook ‘continuing to track us after we log out’ happened two days ago – though the truth or otherwise of that tracking continues to be debated. Am I wrong about privacy? I wonder that for a moment – and then something brings me right back to earth. I have a five-year-old child….

For my child, privacy seems something entirely natural, something deeply desired, something clearly needed. It has done since she was six months old – and perhaps even earlier. Now that she’s at school, it’s even more important to her. She doesn’t tell anyone all her secrets, she carefully controls who she tells what, and I’m quite sure there are many things she tells no-one at all. Privacy, to her and to her friends, is something very much natural.

What about sharing? Well, I can’t imagine that there are many parents who have found that there child wants to share ANYTHING as a matter of course. And that applies just as much to secrets as it does to things. Sharing is something we have to almost force our children to do – often kicking and screaming, and entirely against their will. It takes a long time before they do it willingly, if they ever really do. Even many adults find sharing very difficult – and again, that applies as much to information as it does to material goods.

Of course my evidence is entirely anecdotal, and I have only one example to follow (plus her friends (in the real sense of the word), classmates and acquaintances, while Zuckerberg has 800 million or so – but to my eyes and ears, and to my mind, that anecdotal evidence is pretty compelling. Privacy, to me, is far more natural than sharing. The kind of denial of privacy and enforcement of sharing that an unfettered Facebook would have us believe is ‘natural’ is far from it. For me, at least, it is something that should be resisted, and resisted with vigour.