publicandprivatespace

March 4, 2011

Facebook: Do you know who’s watching?

Filed under: Facebook — publicandprivatespace @ 10:19 am

By: Andrew Henderson

Over the past seven years Facebook has enabled crime and malicious activity through their lack of privacy settings. Incidents involving information sharing, stalking, and hackings have become common occurrences as a result of this absence of privacy. Many individuals, including myself, have begun to believe that Facebook is becoming a personal billboard for people to advertise even the most private aspects of their life.

            Take the recent arrest of George Bronk, a serial hacker who was recently convicted of hacking over 170 accounts. He used personal interests, addresses, telephone numbers, and email address to gain access to these women’s profiles. As a social network site, Facebook should not allow users to view information that will enable the hacking of a private account. Facebook needs to increase the protection of their users. As of now, when a person creates an account, their privacy settings are automatically set to the lowest possible setting. Anyone and everyone can access other users’ address, birthday, phone number, interests, email address and pictures. However, even if stricter privacy settings applied on an account doesn’t mean others have those same privacy settings on theirs. One person’s conversation, slanderous comment or embarrassing photo, regardless of their own privacy settings, can be viewed by their employer, parent or spouse if they follow a thread through a friends Facebook page.

            Information sharing amongst third party companies is another problem that users face when using Facebook. In 2007 the source code that powers the user interface for Facebook was inadvertently exposed through a blog known as Facebook Secrets. This code allowed everyone who used it to access the profiles of millions of users. Although no information and no accounts were affected due to this error, this only goes to show the lack of security Facebook places on its users’ accounts. Placing so much personal information in one location allows a greater risk for identity theft. Especially since social networking services are becoming an even more enticing target for computer hackers.

            A similar incident occurred in 2010 when a company known as Skull Security compiled and released personal data on more than 100 million Facebook users. The file was available for download by anyone who chose to access it. Again, incidents like this have increased the concern over user privacy. Ginger McCall, staff counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center stated, “there are a lot of people unaware of the amount of information Facebook is sharing, most people are under the impression that when set the privacy setting they won’t change.” However Facebook has twice changed the privacy settings in which user’s accounts were returned to default security settings without their consent.

            As a result of the privacy settings issue, there has been an increased demand for Facebook to change their privacy policy and increase user confidentiality. This demand has been met with no results from Facebook. Though CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his co-workers continue to make statements that they are improving privacy, nothing has been done. In 2008 they received heavy criticism and even a $9.5 million lawsuit for their use of the Bacon marketing tool. This program would take user information and send it to companies like Blockbuster, Overstock.com, and Fandango. In return, these companies would send information including what they bought or reviewed back to Facebook. This program was said to be discontinued after the lawsuit was settled. However, Facebook simply just changed the name to Facebook Connect, and gave users the ability to control the information that was shared. This change was never revealed by Zuckerberg and millions of users profiles continue reveal information to third party companies. Just last week I logged onto Netflix.com and as soon as the webpage loaded it showed my name, profile picture, email, number of friends, and where I was from; the site was asking me to create an account but already had the majority of my information.

            This past fall Facebook was again faced with the similar problem of programs sending personal information to web tracking companies. This came just two years after Zuckerberg publically stated they were altering their privacy policy in order to hinder these actions. Ten of the most popular applications on Facebook, including games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars, were transmitting user IDs to third parties. Zuckerberg responded with yet another apology, but this time added that “the site’s privacy settings had become too complicated for the average user to understand.” It’s almost as if he has given up on solving the issues his users have. However, the majority of users still believe that there should be an increase privacy control. Zuckerberg even admitted that he believes users should become more public. He has used Facebook to promote his world vision that privacy is dead and has even stated, “the age of privacy is over.” Despite the demand for privacy reform, Facebook has continued to allow companies to steal user information and share it with outside companies, all while reading apology after apology stating they are fixing their problems.

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