The Not-So-Private Parts


Raise your hand if you’ve never used Google or any of its services, don’t belong to any social network (including sites like Flickr, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), don’t have (or comment on) a blog or never gave out any personal information online, like your name, email address, phone number, etc., in exchange for access and/or membership to a website.

Wow. That’s not many hands.

So, you willingly compromised a little privacy so you could post some photos, make new “friends” or keep a journal? Did anyone ask about your educational background? How about your sexual orientation or marital status? Your political views?

Is that your house I see in the satellite image on my screen?

Let’s safely assume that everyone realizes that any time you use a search engine, join a social networking website, or even post a blog entry – just to name a few free, common online activities – your opinions, preferences and other revealing details are tracked and stored for a variety of reasons, most (I assume to be) commercial in nature.

In other words, people voluntarily disclose personal information in exchange for membership or, at the very least, an online identity so they can search and/or network.

According to Heather Haverstein’s recent article in Computerworld, Pace professor Catherine Dwyer observed that “Users [of Facebook and MySpace] seem to view the social networking sites as a way to get online profiles, photos and the like for free while the sites ‘can take all their data and do whatever they want with it...’”

A marketer’s dream scenario

But who cares, right? You’re making and staying in touch with friends all over the world for free! Well, there must be money in all this somewhere because both Google and Microsoft have taken an interest in Facebook, particularly the valuable user-provided information to sell ads:

“Some industry executives believe the Internet today is facing the sort of turning point that the computer-operating-system sector confronted two decades ago: Whoever controls the technology platform for buying and selling online ads could hold tremendous power over the Internet industry for years to come...”

Facebook’s privacy policy says, among many things, that it “...may also collect information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services...” while MySpace (which is owned by Rupert Murdochs’ News Corp.) says that it “...also collects other profile data including but not limited to: personal interests, gender, age, education and occupation in order to assist users in finding and communicating with each other.”

OK, not big surprises there. But a little further down it states, “We use reasonable measures to protect member information that is stored within our database...[P]lease note that we cannot guarantee the security of member account information.”

So Facebook might be collecting information about me from sources other than Facebook itself, and the sprawl that is MySpace can’t guarantee that all my stored data is safe?

Even Google, despite its “call” for privacy standards, was ranked worst as far as user privacy; it is apparently “misunderstood” but was “working hard”.

I’m glad none of these companies are doctors performing brain surgery; no guarantees, “misunderstood” but "working hard” and marketing their services as useful experiences at the cost of a little personal privacy doesn’t do much to gain my trust, particularly in light of the news that Facebook is being subpoenaed over safety issues, despite “assurances made by the company.”

What You Can Do

  • It’s up to you how much you want to reveal online. Remember that cartoon from a couple of years ago: on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog;
  • Actually read the privacy policies and user agreements before clicking “I Agree”. It may be wordy, but you might decide that the site’s not for you. One website actually begins its legal section with, “Legal Mumble Jumble Ahead! Caution: Boring!!!”;
  • A few weeks ago Facebook announced that it will be opening up to search engines, which means that an abbreviated version of your profile will eventually be visible to Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc. To control this, you need to change your settings under the Privacy > Search area;
  • Sometimes websites require an email address to access information. If you’re not comfortable giving out your personal address, try Sneakemail or 10 Minute Email, whose developer notes that, “My server used to get around 200-300 e-mail a day. In the past week it averaged 60,000-70,000 e-mail a day. Virtually all of those were to old (expired) accounts. Presumably virtually all spam.”
  • Opt-out of letting the site you just joined share your information with third parties.

For your consideration, check out this short video about what Facebook may or may not be up to, and, just for the sake of balance, this viewer’s reaction .

A sinister conspiracy or just business as usual? As with how much information you disclose on the Internet about yourself, it’s your choice.

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