Facebook Is Playing Games With Your Privacy And There’s Nothing You Can Do About It
If you agree to Facebook’s terms and conditions, expect to be transmogrified, horror-movie style, into an unwitting, twitching little guinea pig.
Despite all its moves to improve privacy across the site and the numerous furores it’s faced, the company still thinks it’s fine to carry out tests on users, playing games with our notions of what’s acceptable privacy-wise. The latest game centers on your location.
Kashmir Hill, over at Fusion, discovered Facebook had been using location to suggest friends. The social network even admitted to doing so, claiming to combine that data with other factors, such as work and education information or mutual friends, to offer up people a user might want to connect with. Not long after, however, Facebook denied it was using location data, only to backtrack for a second time, admitting it had carried out a test on an unspecified number of users for four weeks at the end of last year.
Did it ask permission from users involved in the trial to do that? Did it publicly admit to doing so? The answers appear to be no and no. The company hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
No truly private profiles on Facebook
In some ways, privacy has become impossible on Facebook. Over the last few years, Mark Zuckerberg’s firm has been quietly making it impossible to create a truly private profile. Last week, I reviewed my privacy settings in an attempt to ensure my profile couldn’t be found, only to discover that the ability to stop anyone finding me by searching my name had been removed (though I can still stop them looking for me via my registered email). I tested whether that was possible with a fake account and it was, though only old posts and profile photos could be viewed. I subsequently learned Facebook did this way back in 2013 and that there’s no hope of extracting myself from the huge, searchable Social Graph it’s constructing whilst remaining a member. For those who don’t want to be found by anyone other than real friends, this is irritating, possibly dangerous.
You’re not even allowed to use a fake name thanks to the irksome real-name policy. And that too appears to have been expanded of late: when I attempted to sign up using a silly name (mine contained a curse word that I won’t print here) it asked me to provide a government ID, as seen below. This request is normally been used when people need to get back into their Facebook accounts, either because they’ve forgotten their login details or they’ve been thrown out, not during sign-up.
Further attempts to gain membership with ridiculous nomenclature didn’t consistently get the same response, however. Some were allowed through with just an email verification, whilst in one I was inexplicably asked for a phone number. I’ve asked Facebook why and when it requires government ID, but hadn’t received a response at the time of publication. Whatever the truth, it’s denying people the option to use a fake name where that might help them use the site and avoid the prying eyes of a government, one that might use Facebook to track those who disagree with it.
And yet, at the same time, Facebook has done things no other social network has done to offer additional privacy. It was the first to host its site on the anonymizing Tor network. It even allowed users to receive encrypted messages from Facebook with PGP keys. Its privacy guide, with that friendly dinosaur, is also more intuitive than others across the Web, allowing users to hide much of their profile from non-contacts.
How can this be the same company that toys with people’s privacy in myriad ways? Simple: Facebook is huge, full of brilliant security and privacy-focused people, but also a firm that makes its billions from advertising. Marketers are largely about numbers: the bigger Facebook gets, the happier those marketers are. Expansion therefore has to be aggressive, hence the new-fangled and risky ways Facebook wants to connect everyone. And the more open people’s profiles are, the more information can be gleaned by Mad Men rooting around the company’s massive social graph.
The company’s ads also claim it’s doing altruistic work in bringing communities together, which is, on one level, commendable. That doesn’t make the feeling of queasiness dissipate, however, at the thought of a company quietly doing market research on people without telling them, just as it did when carrying out an experiment that removed either positive or negative posts of 689,003 users to see how it affected their mood.
There is, of course, one thing you can do to definitively stop Facebook infringing on your privacy: quit. Though so much of our personal lives – from attending a gig to venting about the Brexit – takes place on the site, even that has become increasingly infeasible. Oh, and tracks non-Facebook users anyway and will keep data on you somewhere in its vast global infrastructure for up to 90 days after you delete your account.
If you’re just concerned about location-tracking, though, head to your privacy settings and turn Facebook location tracking off.