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Face it nothing is private

Insider Media Group | April 6, 2007
Melissa Shin

Whether you like it or not, Facebook knows exactly who you are. But who else does?

If you're a member of Facebook, chances are you've stalked and been stalked.

But what if Facebook stalked back?

Facebook is a veritable treasure trove of demographic information and consumer preferences. Everything from a user's level of education, religious views, favourite television shows, and current address is available.

In short, Facebook is a marketer's dream. So why wouldn't the site perform data mining and sell it to third parties?

Actually, it might. Facebook's privacy policy states that it may use information in your profile without identifying you as an individual to third parties.

It also says, “Our service providers may have access to your personal information for use for a limited time in connection with [their] business activities.”

Interestingly enough, Facebook's collection of users' data extends beyond its own social networking site. Its privacy policy states, “We may use information about you that we collect from other sources, including but not limited to newspapers and Internet sources such as blogs, instant messaging services and other users of Facebook, to supplement your profile.”

Facebook has stated that this clause will be removed in its next privacy policy update, though its current policy is accurate as of October 23, 2006.

Don't panic yet. Within your “My Privacy” settings, Facebook allows you to opt-out of participating in the Facebook Development Platform. The Platform is a collection of web and desktop-based applications designed by third parties to supplement the Facebook experience. These applications can do anything from help you to be a matchmaker to your friends, to make product suggestions based on your friends' favorite movies, books, music and TV shows.

Useful applications, no doubt - but ones with very interesting implications for marketers and privacy advocates alike.

All this makes some wonder if Facebook is really controlled by Big Brother. A few have suggested that Facebook is obliquely connected to the CIA. Josh Smith blogged in August 2005 that Facebook received $12.7 million USD of venture capital from Accel Partners, a firm whose manager James Breyer formerly served as the chairman of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm operated by the CIA. However, Accel has contributed venture capital to many other technology companies, such as BitTorrent and Macromedia.

Nonetheless, the CIA has joined many employers in creating a “Facebook Careers” page that advertises its National Clandestine Service, a department that oversees all human espionage operations. The page features a 30-second promotional video, and the group had over 3,300 members as of late January.

Law enforcement has also used Facebook to investigate campus policy violations and to help solve crimes. “Dry” institutions such as Northern Kentucky University and Saint Joseph's College in Indiana stripped several students of their leadership positions when it was proved through their Facebook photos that they had engaged in alcohol consumption.

As well, a former St. Bonaventure University student was charged in the hit-and-run death of a University of Connecticut freshman after police linked him to the victim using Facebook.

Clearly, Facebook has uses and implications that stretch far beyond just social networking, though many users choose to blithely ignore Facebook's privacy controls and continue to upload sensitive photographs and personal information.

“You don't go walking round the mall telling people whether you are straight or gay,” says Fred Stutzman, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies identity and social networks.

Yet with Facebook, that is exactly what is happening.

Stutzman's study also found that 96% of freshmen share their birthdate, 83% share their sexual orientation, and 75% share their political affiliation.

If you don't want this information falling into the wrong hands, the answer is simple.

As one Facebook group aptly states, “If Facebook invades your privacy, stop posting private information.”

After all, since when has anything on the Internet been private?


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