Facebook Privacy: An Oxymoron


In an open letter to his 350 million users, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg laid out his plans to revise and “improve” Facebook’s privacy options: “The plan we’ve come up with is to remove regional networks completely and create a simpler model for privacy control where you can set content to be available to only your friends, friends of your friends, or everyone.”

If you drill down to the “manage privacy” area from the “settings” link on your Facebook profile, you will be presented with a simplified list of options. Take a minute right now, open a browser and follow along. You need to do this now, trust me.

Click “Profile Information,” click “Change Settings” and one by one decide what you want to display and who you want to see it. Do exactly the same thing for “Contact Information” and exactly the same thing for “Search.” Seriously, stop reading this article now and go review and reset your Facebook privacy settings. It is very likely that they are not set the way you think they are. I’ll wait.

Welcome back. I didn’t tell you to review or reset your “Applications and Websites” settings or your “Block List” settings because it does not really matter how they are set. If you’ve blocked someone previously, they are still blocked and I’m about to scare the hell out of you with regard to “Applications and Websites” on Facebook.

Facebook is described many different ways. To some, it is a community. Others call it a social network. Still others say it is a “conversation.” All of this is wrong. Facebook is a commercial enterprise started in Silicon Valley. It is a “for profit” venture with the goal of increasing shareholder value. No decision is made about the “community” on Facebook without a group of very serious, profit-minded executives thinking through how the decision will impact the bottom line, the cap chart, the exit strategy, etc. Facebook is, first and foremost, a business.

Keep this in mind as we sort through some of the Facebook’s “privacy” issues. One of the most popular things to do on Facebook (if not the most popular thing) is to look at other people’s pictures. This is a well-documented behavior. In order for this to occur, people need to “publish” their pictures. Now comes the hard part. Who gets to see them? If you want your pictures to be private, why publish them? If you only want a select group of people to see them, why not upload them to a secure photo-sharing environment like Kodak Gallery? What is the sociological or behavioral thought process behind the notion of publishing something in a public venue and then trying to limit viewership?

Moving on. Let’s say that you do not have the technological prowess to privatize your images using other tools. Or, let’s say you really like the features of Facebook and you want to use them in a private way with only a certain, highly filtered group of people? Is there a reasonable expectation of privacy? If you select an “only friends” privacy setting for a picture, what’s to stop one of them from “dragging and dropping” your “private” picture onto their desktop and emailing it to others? Do you know and trust everyone you “friend” on Facebook? Of course not. If you select the “friends of friends” privacy setting, you have almost no control of the image and the “everyone” privacy setting is self-explanatory.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that I acknowledge that there is a value in the modicum of privacy that these controls afford. The real danger to your privacy is not from your friends or friends of friends, it’s from Facebook itself. These new settings are structured to make your data more available, not less. You have to go set them to be restrictive. They are defaulted to be open. Why? Facebook is now competing with Twitter to be the realtime data and brand sentiment engine of choice. They need your status updates and behaviors to be available to them or they can’t repackage you and sell the data.

Which brings us to the “Applications and Websites” settings. This is really the most telling casualty of Facebook’s revised privacy policy. Someone please go find the radio button that used to say, “Do not share any information about me through the Facebook API” It’s gone! So, no matter how your privacy settings are set, when you install an application and press “Allow” you are allowing the third-party person or organization who built the application access to ALL of your Facebook profile data. Not some, all. And, it does not matter how you have previously configured your privacy settings. The “Allow” button overrides them.

For most people, this is not an issue. Andy Warhol said, “Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” During the user generated content craze a few years back I updated it by saying, “Everyone will be famous for 15 megabytes.” Today, you could say that, “Everyone will be famous for 15 words.” (The average length of a Tweet or FB update.) If fame or street cred within your social network or community of interest is your goal, Facebook delivers. However, Facebook privacy is an illusion at best. If you want your information to be truly private, it doesn’t make sense to publish it to a community of 350 million users. And it never will. Shelly Palmer


About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit shellypalmer.com.



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