I was asked to write an editorial for the Guardian’s Comment website about Facebook and privacy. Here’s an excerpt:
Facebook has been repeatedly criticised on privacy grounds. While the company claims it doesn’t sell user information, details are made available to third-party application developers, who account for much of the site’s profits. And researchers have found that personal data can be “leaked” to advertisers and data aggregators, who already collect browsing and behavioural information about people as they move about the web. Just last week, Facebook announced a multi-million dollar deal with Nielsen, known for their meticulous tracking of television ratings and internet metrics.
Even without these partnerships, Facebook makes privacy advocates uneasy. University of Wisconsin professor Michael Zimmer accurately identified an “anonymised” Facebook dataset from the description that it was a private college in the northeast (spoiler alert: it was Harvard). Similarly, the “Project Gaydar” research team at MIT found that gay men’s sexual orientation could be identified based solely on their friends. It’s not just information you make explicitly available – age, partner’s name or favourite film – that identifies you on Facebook. Close analysis of a network of friends can reveal deeply personal details, even with a private profile. These studies suggest that it’s impossible to retain complete control over personal information within a detailed, publicly available network.
I’m happy with how it came out and I look forward to hearing everyone’s comments. The Guardian website right now has a majority in favor of “if you post your personal info on Facebook you deserve whatever you get,” so if your understanding of online privacy is slightly more sophisticated, feel free to leave me feedback.