Facebook’s New Settings Raise Data Privacy Questions

Did you know that U.S. Facebook accounts number close to one third of the entire United States population? I had no idea the number was that large until just this week. You might be wondering why I’m focusing on a social media networking site in my SQL Server Magazine UPDATE commentary. However, some items I’ve read this week put a whole new spin on what Facebook is, what it’s becoming, and some of the potential perils we might face (pun intended) in the future with Facebook.

Alas, I can’t fully explore the topic in the limited space that I have, so to get the gist of the rest of my commentary, I recommend reading “Facebook may ‘lock in’ its Internet dominance” and “Facebook's New Privacy Changes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”  These articles discuss the concept of “technological lock in,” which basically means that the more people that use and rely on a particular technology, and the higher the percentage of a population adopting said technology, the harder it becomes to get rid of the technology. Many pundits are suggesting that Facebook is on the verge of achieving this lock in.   Yeah, I could see the lock in happening. Heck, I didn’t have a Facebook account until this past December and I’ve been finding myself liking Facebook more and more.

No matter how much I like Facebook, \[Addition OK?\]  the total disregard for privacy coupled with the potential ramifications of people sharing their lives online allows me to imagine really, really bad outcomes. Facebook changed its privacy settings in December 2009. Some information that you used to be able to keep private has been made public with no ability to override the settings, and other new default settings make certain information entirely public by default when it used to be private by default. Remember the “secure by default” mantra that Microsoft went through while designing SQL Server 2005 after the Slammer and other security debacles years ago? This policy is just the opposite.

Still wondering where I’m going with this? Well keep your data hat on and imagine a world in which 75 percent or more of the population is on Facebook and people put a ton of personal information on their profiles. If you read the articles above, you know about the Gaydar study that was done by MIT that showed you could predict a person’s sexual orientation  with a high degree of accuracy simply by looking at their friend list, which is now public in Facebook. Let your mind have fun with the social network data mining that could easily occur. Who cares about telemarketers and do not call lists when Facebook could be a much better way for annoying marketing people to bother us? Let’s not stop at telemarketers. I’ll bet criminals could come up with some nifty profiling to help them find good targets for petty and serious crimes. Just build a Facebook app for it. 

Are Facebook’s current privacy settings, or lack thereof, going too far? Let’s assume that the information that Facebook has unilaterally made public, which used to be private, is fine to make public. If Facebook has changed its mind in the past about what should be public or private, could the company do it in the future? Pundits argue that the recent privacy changes aren’t about privacy. They’re designed to allow Facebook to compete more aggressively with Twitter in respect to real-time information sharing in advance of its pending IPO. Might Facebook decide to somehow monetize other private information in the future by changing its mind and making it public? A promise is a promise, unless it can’t be trusted.

In the short few weeks I’ve been using Facebook, I’ve really come to like it. I had planned to use it more and more. Now, I’m not sure. I’ll certainly be super -cautious. I’m border-line libertarian when it comes to my views on government supervision of private business, but I like the do not call list. Frankly, sometimes businesses can’t be trusted to do what’s right. I’m not sure if what Facebook is doing is right or not. But it sure feels wrong, and if the government can decide when and how telemarketers can call me at home, I sure hope they consider this massive privacy issue as well.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.