A Few Thoughts on Facebook and Social Networking Privacy

Growing up in the Internet age I accept that I don’t really have any privacy. It is possible for almost anyone to find out almost anything about me. For instance any company that extends a form of credit to me be it a hire purchase, credit card, or even renting a car will be able to find out my finance history through information sharing services such as Veda Advantage. And if I move house or update one piece of information with a government department suddenly the IRD, Electoral Office and almost everyone else knows my knew address and starts sending me angry letters telling me to update my details. I simply couldn’t vanish no matter how hard I tried.

On the internet privacy concerns have existed since its birth. In the past in order to protect peoples identities many users operated behind aliases and screen names. I have had a few the two most prominent being kiwikidbrad and more recently nzv8fan. However, there are two main problems with screen aliases. The first is they can still quite easily lead back to you, for instance kiwikidbrad suggests my real name is Brad, and I am a kiwi, and still reasonably young (okay I started using this name when I was around 10 or 11 years old). When I switched to nzv8fan it was a little less obvious who I was other than I was from NZ and into V8 Supercars, but still over time you slip and sign off a post as Brad or accidentally post from somewhere that lists your real name alongside your screen name. The second problem with aliases is not knowing the true identity of who is behind them. Even though I just said I could be worked out, if I had a phony identity to start with, and then built an online alias on top of that I can become quite a credible fake.

To get around these problems Facebook did something quite radical when it launched. You would not have screen names rather you would use your actual identity. This is both a good and terrible idea. It is a good idea because it means you can rapidly be found my people in your past who may not know you currently and therefore would have a hard time finding out your screen name. It is also a terrible idea because of how easy it makes you to find.

Initially Facebook introduced some good privacy controls around this, firstly anyone accessing any data on Facebook had to be registered on the site, there was no such thing as a public profile. Secondly a lot of your data was hidden to people who were not your friends and only a limited amount was supplied to people so they could identify you as an actual friend and add you. This system worked quite well.

As a result of this openness about identity but strictness in privacy a lot of people flocked to Facebook as it was a genuine site where you could actually trust people, but as people flocked to Facebook it became too popular for its own good. It got greedy and power hungry. As a result of this over the past two or so years the high walls of privacy that protect users on Facebook have come tumbling down. Now in the latest development (see my immediate prior post) Facebook’s desire to connect everyone to everyone else has seen the creation of public pages that connect anyone with any remote common interest that they list. Essentially everything you write on Facebook will be connected. Forget 6 degrees of separation Facebook is aiming for 1.

The next developments in Facebook’s history will be interesting. I am wondering if a new player will arrive on the stage that brings back the privacy controls that users once had. I wonder if Facebook will buckle and bring in a whole lot of strict privacy controls not the complex mess they have now that is confusing and doesn’t give you much control at all. I wonder if they will be sued by some government department, state, company or individual.

If I were to start some form of Facebook clone there are a few things I would do:

  • Use people’s real names.
  • Allow people to list their birthday – birthday wishes are cool, but not publicly list their year of birth.
  • Allow people to upload and tag photos – but photos tagged of other individuals must have their permission for the tag first.
  • No public profiles.
  • You must be registered on the site to access any other members.
  • People can search for others but only on name, email address (not publically listed but searchable), workplace, school, college or sports team, but not common interest.
  • Not allow applications that access other user’s private details. If you want to do some sort of quiz that is cool, but having third party applications mine other user’s data without their permission is wrong.
  • Have fan pages for companies, and political causes. But disable pages that require you to join something before you can see all the details – and irony with facebook is fan pages often have more privacy controls than user pages.

These are just a few thoughts, I don’t have time, or energy, or the will power to start my own clone and have it reach a critical mass. However, these thoughts are welcome to be used by anyone who is willing too – and please do. I am planning on deactivating my Facebook account in a week’s time.

And for those people who think Facebook is too big to fail just look at what happened to MySpace. This Alexa traffic graph shows it nicely.
Alexa Graph

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