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Worried About Facebook? Here’s Who Really Knows Your Private Business

| November 29, 2012
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Facebook user-agreement changes and the accompanying uproar about privacy are beginning to feel as common as, say, an Apple product launch. But how big a threat are these changes?

Concerns over privacy led to protests in June, 2010 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

KQED’s Forum gathered some smart people: All Things D’s Kara Swisher, NPR’s Laura Sydell and Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Mark Rotenberg to gather insight into Facebook’s latest policy changes. The takeaway: Facebook’s changes — not such a big deal. Google, mobile and government data gathering — pretty big deal.

According to Sydell, Facebook’s motivation for the change is not to provide profits to shareholders at the expense of users’ privacy.

“There are changes sometimes that a business needs to make for practical reasons,” said Sydell.

Those practical reasons include wanting to share servers between Instagram and Facebook, improving a less-than-ideal mail service and ending a user voting system that Facebook has outgrown.

But just because the changes aren’t part of a profiteering scheme doesn’t mean that anyone should expect privacy on Facebook, or any social network, for that matter.

“If you live in this connected world, you are going to have your privacy violated,” said Swisher.

But as our guests and callers pointed out, there’s having your privacy violated, and then there’s having your privacy violated. Here are some of the trends and entities that our guests are concerned about:

1. Google
“I happen to be married to a Google person and I’m frightened of them,” said Swisher. “The kind of data that they have on people is vast. I’ve gotten into arguments with Google executives over this many times. One of their arguments is ‘We understand. We’re good people.’ And I keep saying ‘Who runs Google in 10 years? Who gets this power?’ I think all of the [companies] collectively are a problem in that regard but [Google] definitely has more information than anybody else.”

2. Government
“You’re sharing your information with these companies and you kind of know that they’re going to use it to give you ads,” said Sydell. “And maybe you’re not really worried about that. The bigger problem might be that these companies are compiling this information and increasingly the government subpoenas the information from these companies.”

“It’s going to be irresistible to government, both ours and others, not to go in when they’re looking for a criminal,” warned Sydell.

3. Mobile
“Once this [data collecting] becomes mobile, this becomes very important,” said Swisher. “I think it will resonate with consumers who maybe don’t pay as much attention to this as we do. When you search on Google on your desktop and you go from one site to the next, it’s troubling enough that they know exactly where you’re going. But when you search on say an Android phone, and you then go somewhere and do something, or you buy something, or you post a picture, they know not just what you search next but they know what you did next, where you go next, they know what you said next, they know who you called next. That becomes a really problematic issue of true tracking. Mobile takes this into a quantum level of interest to consumers.”

4. Third Party App Developers
“One of things that most Facebook users don’t know is that when you install an app, basically your whole social graph — which is your friends, and your likes, and your public information, everything else goes to the app developer,” said Rotenberg. “Now, again, if people want to do that, that’s their choice and that’s fine, but they should understand just how much information flows as a consequence of installing an app or using one of the  Facebook-enabled Internet website partners.”

5. Each Other
“Data is so intermingled with other people’s data,” said Swisher. “If Michael wants to pull down his information and he’s done a lot of interaction with me, is it my data or his data?”

“The way it’s supposed to work is that when you delete your information on Facebook it gets deleted, if you want it gone for good,” said Swisher. “That said — what’s that famous line from the Facebook movie — ‘The Internet is written in pen, not pencil.’ You don’t know what’s been moved around by other people, what people have grabbed. I don’t know how to compare it, it’s almost like a viral disease.”

You can listen to the complete episode of Forum here:

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About the Author ()

Amanda Stupi is the Engagement Producer for KQED’s daily public affairs program Forum. In that role she turns the information shared during the hour-long call-in show into web-friendly content. Her writing has been featured throughout KQED.org, including on KQED Arts and News Fix as well as on MLB.com, Hyphen Magazine and the San Francisco Examiner. Her radio work has aired on The California Report and Talk of the Nation. Stupi runs the @KQEDForum Twitter account and Forum Facebook account. Her personal Twitter account is @FiftyCentHotdog. She believes that Hostess products get a bad rap and that cereal can save the world. Reach Amanda Stupi at astupi@kqed.org.
  • Marc Rotenberg

    Actually, Facebook’s changes are a big deal. That’s why EPIC and 10^6 users opposed the changes. More here: http://epic.org/2012/11/privacy-groups-ask-facebook-to.html

    • http://www.facebook.com/peasprout Greg Gioia

      Who cares if anyone has that information? It doesn’t affect you in any real way. So what if they can customize ads to suit what they believe your preferences are?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Poesha-Poe/1270525179 Poesha Poe

    “Their data” not there data. I’m not even a grammar Nazi but come on!

    • KQED Moderator

      Thanks for the catch, Poesha. The typo has been fixed.