Jesse-Justin Cuevas, Columnist
Ideology: Left-Independent | Writing from: New York
Last August, Balachander Krishnamurthy and Craig Willis of AT&T Labs and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, respectfully, discovered that online social-networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, were making their users’ personal information available to third party advertisers with the click of a button. When their research came out last year, it drew little attention –but once politicians and journalists picked up on the scandal, Facebook and MySpace made moves to change their policies.
In late April, Senator Schumer wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission reproaching Facebook’s privacy breach. Supposedly, the site gained profits from selling user information for commercial benefits. The Wall Street Journal picked up on the privacy scandal at the end of last month, and last Wednesday, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, discussed the company’s privacy practices at the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital technology conference.
Before Facebook changed its computer code, a Facebook user unknowingly revealed his personal information to advertisers simply by clicking on an ad in the side panel. Advertisers generally receive the address of the page from which an ad is clicked—this is a common Internet practice, but the very nature of social-networking sites, despite their own privacy policies against sharing users’ “personally identifiable information,” makes personal contact information such as (real) full names, locations and places of employment readily available.
The relationship between Facebook advertisers and users is not the only provocative technological conundrum affecting our privacy.
In early may, the company confirmed its plans to launch a geo-location feature that is more robust than Foursquare or Gowalla, known as Places. A TechCrunch blogger found a potential “demo” version of the new Places tab on the touch version of Facebook. Supposedly this new dimension will have check-ins like the other geo-location companies, but Facebook’s new feature also will detect and record, in addition to latitude and longitude, the altitude, speed and heading of the mobile user and the accuracy of the location measurement.
As exciting as all this may be for our highly connected world—and certainly there are benefits to partaking in this technological frenzy: consumer incentives like promotional discounts and general entertainment—isn’t it all a bit much?
I remember why I first joined MySpace. It was because my best friends moved away to go to college, and being a year below them and, therefore, still in high school, I couldn’t yet join Facebook. A year later, Facebook expanded membership beyond the university population, and I was a bitter freshman undergrad because the youngsters from my high school got to revel in my collegiate milestone. By the time I graduated from college, anyone with a valid email address could join the social-networking site.
The more popular Facebook became, the more complicated privacy got. At first only college students had to worry about other creepy college students, but then everyone started worrying about employers and relatives, not to mention sketchy strangers. And now, the company CEO is traveling around the nation defending his phenomenon’s ability to keep users protected.
Fierce Content Management warns that geo-location technology may lead to crime, but I am more concerned, personally, with being left alone. Yes, users can decide whether or not they want to broadcast their location. But that isn’t really the point. When is enough enough? Aren’t our means of communication already sadly impersonal? Don’t we already know enough about each other’s personal lives? Isn’t there a line to be drawn between private and public, or do we only hold on to the sanctity of privacy when it comes to our civil rights?
The merging of the public and private spheres is an interesting issue. There are some places in the world where “privacy” as we know it—legally, constitutionally, socially—does not exist. On the other hand, some people believe that membership to any given association—country, society, profession, club—should be kept completely separate from the “personal.” How do we determine, then, what is personal, what is private and what ought to be shared in this new world where technology makes almost everything publicly available? Do privacy settings really mean anything in this age of the Internet, and does the option of opting out of certain types of technology really prevent the breakdown of privacy? Or is our ever-expanding technological overload indicative of a changing relationship between the personal and the public?