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Why All The Hubbub About Facebook Privacy?

Callie Schweitzer |
August 4, 2010 | 6:50 p.m. PDT


Maybe Mark Zuckerberg isn't the Internet tycoon we should be worrying about. (Creative Commons)
Maybe Mark Zuckerberg isn't the Internet tycoon we should be worrying about. (Creative Commons)
We’ve all imagined Mark Zuckerberg sitting on a throne, being fed grapes, laughing as he reads the “intimate” messages between two Facebook members he’s never met. But why haven’t we vilified or personified the brains behind Google and Yahoo who have gathered much more data on all of us over the years?

On a server residing in a giant warehouse in a place like Oregon, North Carolina or even Belgium, every exchange we’ve ever had on Gmail is floating around waiting to be discovered. We are too easily satisfied by the words “off the record,” “marked as spam” and “deleted forever.” These are all things that give us peace of mind in an age when people are screaming at the top of their lungs: “PRIVACY IS DEAD!

And maybe it is.

But no one ever said Facebook was private, and come to think of it, no one ever said your e-mail account was private either. We all just hope it is. 

In fact, the only thing that’s actually private anymore is our own personal thoughts. (Assuming that “Inception” isn’t real.)

Someone recently said to me, “Any service you get for free is not private.” This reminded me of the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Is it possible that in our new age of Internet addiction and immediacy, nothing comes without a catch?

Visit my Facebook page, and you’ll learn some things about me.

A few of my interests include: the Internet, newspapers and multi-tasking.

(Spend about 5 seconds with me, and my love of these three things will be painfully evident as I type furiously on my Blackberry while checking something on my laptop and carrying on a full and coherent conversation with the person standing in front of me.)

Oh, and as per a recent status update, I just adored “Ramona and Beezus” and I’m not ashamed to say it.

(Or else I never would have admitted to having seen it—let alone share it with my universe of more than 2,000 Facebook friends.)

These are the inner musings of my “private” Facebook page.

And despite placing privacy settings on high, controlling who in the outside world can see what on my page, and limiting my profile to some, I am aware that my Facebook page is completely and utterly unprivate.

Hence why I state the obvious.

Everything we do on Facebook is in some way a conscious action. We write on a friend’s wall knowing that it will be broadcast to the world on the newsfeed, opening ourselves up to both praise and criticism. We detag photographs remembering the public nature of Facebook and knowing we don’t want to be linked to last night’s activities. And we list our contact information—for some unknown reason—encouraging people to contact us, inviting spam into our inboxes or cell phone voicemail boxes. 

During the cyber-stoning of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg over recent user privacy issues, I began to wonder why people were so concerned about their public personas being…well…public.

I'm baffled by all the fuss about Facebook when we really should be worrying about what Web services tycoons Google, Microsoft and Yahoo really know about us.

Gmail’s Wikipedia entry clearly states how the Web browser feels about privacy:

[E]-mail that non-subscribers choose to send to Gmail accounts is scanned by Gmail as well, even though those senders never agreed to Gmail's terms of service or privacy policy. Google can change its privacy policy unilaterally and Google is technically able to cross-reference cookies across its information-rich product line to make dossiers on individuals. However, most e-mail systems make use of server-side content scanning in order to check for spam.

Gmail's privacy policy contains the clause: "residual copies of deleted messages and accounts may take up to 60 days to be deleted from our active servers and may remain in our offline backup systems". Google points out that Gmail adheres to most industry-wide practices. Google has stated that they will "make reasonable efforts to remove deleted information from our systems as quickly as is practical."

In a new series, “What They Know” (bringing to mind the ominous and threatening nature of Internet powerhouses like Facebook, Google and Yahoo), the Wall Street Journal aims to expose the evil doings of these companies and just how much of a Big Brother role they play in our lives.

It turns out Microsoft Corp. nixed the idea of incorporating a built-in privacy setting for Internet Explorer 8.0 in favor of bigger profits from advertisers who don’t want people to have automatic privacy, and they’re certainly not alone.

Here’s the scoop:

“[T]he nation's 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none…[T]he Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions…The goal is to make sophisticated assumptions in real time—plans for a summer vacation, the likelihood of repaying a loan—and sell those conclusions.”

There goes privacy.

At least most of the data collected isn't attached to our names, though. Instead, we are known only by random unique ID numbers, as if we’re computers ourselves. Comforting.

But putting aside all that companies know about our likes and dislikes from what shoes we buy and which websites we visit the most, with e-mail companies, we’re handing over our personal identities without even intending to.

We pour out our hearts to friends, family, co-workers and strangers via e-mail, and yet we feel cocooned in the safe realm of Gmail or Yahoo Mail.

We e-mail sensitive data like credit card numbers and social security numbers without even batting an eye. Would you post that on someone’s wall on Facebook? Definitely not.

So why is it that we are so much less aware of the third party looming behind all of our e-mail exchanges?

Maybe it’s time for everyone to stop fretting about Facebook privacy and ask where else you can meet 500 million people free of charge? What we really should be worrying about is the day Facebook starts charging.  


To reach editor-in-chief Callie Schweitzer, click here.

Follow her on Twitter: @cschweitz



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