Google And Facebook's Privacy Illusion
These companies and others say privacy erosion is inevitable--but they're making it so.
In January Facebook Chief Executive, Mark Zuckerberg, declared the age of privacy to be over. A month earlier, Google Chief Eric Schmidt expressed a similar sentiment. Add Scott McNealy's and Larry Ellison's comments from a few years earlier, and you've got a whole lot of tech CEOs proclaiming the death of privacy--especially when it comes to young people.
It's just not true. People, including the younger generation, still care about privacy. Yes, they're far more public on the Internet than their parents: writing personal details on Facebook, posting embarrassing photos on Flickr and having intimate conversations on Twitter. But they take steps to protect their privacy and vociferously complain when they feel it violated. They're not technically sophisticated about privacy and make mistakes all the time, but that's mostly the fault of companies and Web sites that try to manipulate them for financial gain.
To the older generation, privacy is about secrecy. And, as the Supreme Court said, once something is no longer secret, it's no longer private. But that's not how privacy works, and it's not how the younger generation thinks about it. Privacy is about control. When your health records are sold to a pharmaceutical company without your permission; when a social-networking site changes your privacy settings to make what used to be visible only to your friends visible to everyone; when the NSA eavesdrops on everyone's e-mail conversations--your loss of control over that information is the issue. We may not mind sharing our personal lives and thoughts, but we want to control how, where and with whom. A privacy failure is a control failure.
People's relationship with privacy is socially complicated. Salience matters: People are more likely to protect their privacy if they're thinking about it, and less likely to if they're thinking about something else. Social-networking sites know this, constantly reminding people about how much fun it is to share photos and comments and conversations while downplaying the privacy risks. Some sites go even further, deliberately hiding information about how little control--and privacy--users have over their data. We all give up our privacy when we're not thinking about it.
Group behavior matters; we're more likely to expose personal information when our peers are doing it. We object more to losing privacy than we value its return once it's gone. Even if we don't have control over our data, an illusion of control reassures us. And we are poor judges of risk. All sorts of academic research backs up these findings.
Here's the problem: The very companies whose CEOs eulogize privacy make their money by controlling vast amounts of their users' information. Whether through targeted advertising, cross-selling or simply convincing their users to spend more time on their site and sign up their friends, more information shared in more ways, more publicly means more profits. This means these companies are motivated to continually ratchet down the privacy of their services, while at the same time pronouncing privacy erosions as inevitable and giving users the illusion of control.
You can see these forces in play with Google's launch of Buzz. Buzz is a Twitter-like chatting service, and when Google launched it in February, the defaults were set so people would follow the people they corresponded with frequently in Gmail, with the list publicly available. Yes, users could change these options, but--and Google knew this--changing options is hard and most people accept the defaults, especially when they're trying out something new. People were upset that their previously private e-mail contacts list was suddenly public. A Federal Trade Commission commissioner even threatened penalties. And though Google changed its defaults, resentment remained.
Facebook tried a similar control grab when it changed people's default privacy settings last December to make them more public. While users could, in theory, keep their previous settings, it took an effort. Many people just wanted to chat with their friends and clicked through the new defaults without realizing it.
Facebook has a history of this sort of thing. In 2006 it introduced News Feeds, which changed the way people viewed information about their friends. There was no true privacy change in that users could not see more information than before; the change was in control--or arguably, just in the illusion of control. Still, there was a large uproar. And Facebook is doing it again; last month, the company announced new privacy changes that will make it easier for it to collect location data on users and sell that data to third parties.
With all this privacy erosion, those CEOs may actually be right--but only because they're working to kill privacy. On the Internet, our privacy options are limited to the options those companies give us and how easy they are to find. We have Gmail and Facebook accounts because that's where we socialize these days, and it's hard--especially for the younger generation--to opt out. As long as privacy isn't salient, and as long as these companies are allowed to forcibly change social norms by limiting options, people will increasingly get used to less and less privacy. There's no malice on anyone's part here; it's just market forces in action. If we believe privacy is a social good, something necessary for democracy, liberty and human dignity, then we can't rely on market forces to maintain it. Broad legislation protecting personal privacy by giving people control over their personal data is the only solution.
Categories: Privacy and Surveillance
Are you in a relationship? What are your political views? And where did you go for breakfast this morning? What would once have been details of our lives known only by those we know and trust, many of us now willingly display online.
From the surveillance entertainment of Big Brother to CCTV and celebrity magazines, the boundaries of what is regarded as appropriate to put in the public domain are shifting dramatically. But nothing is challenging our notion of privacy more than social networking, with 26 million of us using Facebook to share the minutiae of our lives every month in the UK alone.
Facebook has proved irresistible to many because we are lured into joining by friends and family. Browsing, reading, comparing and nosing is instinctive, impulsive and reflects our tendencies offline, our "social graph", as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg likes to call it. Having executed the social networking business idea better than its rivals – MySpace, Bebo, Friendster and Hi5 have been left for dust – Facebook has seen astonishing growth, from a Harvard dorm project in 2003 to a global phenomenon that had 500 million monthly users by July this year. That's already one in 13 people on Earth, and Zuckerberg recently predicted it was "almost a guarantee" that his site would reach 1 billion users, with growth in relatively untapped markets such as Russia, Japan and Korea "doubling every six months".
On Thursday, Facebook unveiled its latest gambit in the battle to remain top of the social networking heap with a move into geolocation services, which harness the GPS functionality of increasingly powerful mobile smartphones. Facebook Places will launch first in the US and later in the UK, allowing users, if they choose, to share their location with friends on the site by checking into public venues. Sensitive to intense public scrutiny of its privacy controls, Facebook was careful to make the service opt-in but every geolocation service – including Google's Latitude, Gowalla and Foursquare – has prompted renewed debate about the protection of personal details online.
"This is a seminal moment where we're seeing new thinking and new practice starting to emerge around the issue of privacy," says Stephen Balkam, chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute and member of Facebook's safety advisory board. "The battle lines are being drawn between generations. Facebook is headed by someone who hasn't hit 30 yet, but has very different perceptions and assumptions about what is private and what is not. We need to recognise that with social networking, geolocation and digital technology, the privacy bar is being reset."
Facebook has come under significant pressure to make its site safer for users. Incidents of serious crimes facilitated by the internet such as the murder of British teenager Ashleigh Hall by Peter Chapman earlier this year, are tragic but rare. More common is the embarrassment from a compromising tagged photo of a drunken night out.
The rapid pace of development by technology companies often throws up new cultural and ethical challenges. Google's Street View has frequently been challenged by privacy campaigners who question whether the logistical and commercial benefits of making every property in every street visible on the web are worth the sacrifice of the individual's right to privacy. Facebook users first raised their pitchforks in 2006 when the site introduced a news feed for each user, summarising their friends' activity. More recently it came under pressure to simplify its privacy controls with some high-profile commentators and groups – organised on Facebook pages, naturally – encouraging others to remove their profiles. It responded in May with simplified privacy settings.
Richard, now Lord, Allan is a former Liberal Democrat MP and Facebook's European policy director. "The internet is here to stay as a ubiquitous way for every individual citizen to capture and share information. The challenge is how you manage that increasing flow of information and that's where Facebook is at the bleeding edge, allowing people to navigate that world. Expressions of concern and criticisms are really of that direction of travel, rather than any particular product, like Facebook."
Allan thinks it is an exaggeration to characterise privacy as a natural state of man, citing societies before mass transport where a large community would know every intimate detail of each other's lives. The modern sense of privacy came much later, with modern transport and cities. "Notably with new technology, you end up with a utopian viewpoint and a dystopian viewpoint, but a lot of things those dystopians feared did not come true. To say you're 'living in Facebook rather than the real world' is a complete misreading of what's happening. The reason it is so compelling is because it is so connected to the real world. With every wave of technology we need to get used to it."
Our personal information can broadly be categorised as trivial data such as music preferences, behavioural information about our activity and connections, and confidential information including credit card numbers. But even seemingly innocuous information can be used against us, says security expert Rik Ferguson of Trend Micro. "In isolation, much of this data may be trivial but from a hacker's perspective, any information is good information," he says. "Use search engines to discover the extent of your online footprint and tailor it. Keep tabs on yourself before anyone else does."
Balkam describes the internet's two biggest privacy problems as reputational damage – inadvertently posting drunken photos that your boss might see, for example – and physical safety, the latter being the issue for women particularly wary of location tools. Burglary is another concern, when users of location services announce they are out of the house; in February three developers built PleaseRobMe.com to raise awareness about the implications of broadcasting location to a public audience.
Currently location games such as Foursquare, where users check in at public venues to earn points and prizes, tend to have a small, enthusiastic and largely trustworthy group of dedicated users comprised of so-called "early adopters". For them, this period of intensive invention and opportunity is a golden age. Christian Payne – who describes himself as a "social technologist" – abandoned a career as a photographer in early 2008 when he had a "car crash epiphany". Within minutes of tweeting a video of his crashed Land Rover, he had an offer of help from a local crane operator, his AA membership number sent to him and a call from BT asking for the serial number of the telegraph pole he'd crashed into. He worries that spirit of helpfulness will dilute as social media becomes more commercialised, and its users more sceptical.
"We'll never see it like we do now – more nefarious people will come later," he says. "But it would be more risky for me not to take the chance of building meaningful connections with acquaintances who then become friends when one of you needs some help."
Payne seems to put a lot of intimate information into the world, but still skillfully manages to keep his personal life, and that of his partner and son, almost completely private. It's up to the user to decide what they want to keep private, he says, though he's uncomfortable with the idea that he is unknowingly creating a public persona for himself. "I'd hope I'm doing this naturally and not thinking about it. But then asking me that is like taking me out of the play I'm acting in as myself – and asking me to direct it."
Online privacy is intrinsically linked to identity. Author Peggy Orenstein wrote in the New York Times recently that her reflexive compulsion to tweet a pleasant moment with her daughter had also spoilt the moment, and mused that our online personas are elaborate constructs that we, knowingly or unknowingly, craft into an identity we want the world to see. The internet has provided a platform that seems to challenge us to present a single identity to the world, yet we struggle to balance the profiles we share with family, friends and work colleagues.
Stories of employers sacking staff for drunken Facebook photos will be replaced by an acceptance that drunken university pictures are the norm, says Dr Joss Wright, Fresnel research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. He hopes sites will develop more intuitive ways to share information with the appropriate people; when his grandmother joined Facebook it "severely curtailed" what he could share with his friends.
"I'd like to believe people will learn how to guard their privacy, but we're more likely to see societal shifts in what is seen as acceptable for privacy," Wright adds. "Privacy has tended to be something quite intrinsic, and there hasn't been a mechanism for privacy violation in general society until the arrival of the internet. The rise of Facebook and Foursquare show we don't really understand privacy or what it means to preserve it, and don't have an ability to understand the consequences of violating it either."
Regulators struggle to keep up with the pace of technology and enforcement of what rules there are is weak, meaning the onus for education should be on the services themselves, says Wright, who doesn't think they are closely scrutinised enough. Though sites like Facebook have a duty of care, "the economics are against that, because their entire business model is built around getting us to share as much information as possible".
But there are upsides, too. Sharing personal information is beneficial in giving insights into different aspects of society. "If you can see the details of people's lives, when you can see someone's actual persona, it's harder to be biased and bigoted," said Wright. "But a balance has to be struck between the amount we share for the positive and negative."
Eric Schmidt, Google chief executive, recently reiterated his suggestion that internet users may one day be able to change their identities in order to distance themselves from personal information shared so freely in their formative years. "I don't believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time," he told the Wall Street Journal.
Zuckerberg takes a different tack. "You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly … Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity," he was quoted as saying in David Kirkpatrick's book, The Facebook Effect.
Part of Facebook's success has been to demand people's real identities. In that way, it represents the maturation of the internet where the previous norm had been a wisecrack pseudonym and a world of "trolling", where faceless, nameless commenters could easily post abusive messages and attack each other. The improvement in the quality of communication and debate online is in no small part down to the trend towards using real identities. However, anonymity still has its role in whistleblowing sites such as Wikileaks, or in debates where a contributor to a discussion on rape, for example, deserves protection.
If you think the current internet landscape is frightening, don't think too much about what's coming next. Already served with targeted ads based on keywords in our Google email, or picked out by our age and interests on Facebook, the future is more personalised still. "Sites will get much better at filtering information and predicting our behaviour, serving us what we want to buy and finding new ways to share information, like location. Three years ago, people wouldn't even have dreamed of sharing their location," says Wright. While the sensitivities and sensibilities of managing our online data still need to be clarified, there will be benefits in personalisation, which promises more meaningful, relevant advertising for consumers and consequently, for advertisers, far more effective bang for their buck.
So what next? Three years ago, rival social networking site MySpace seemed invincible. Could Facebook still lose its edge? Anything is possible.
Balkam recently suggested Facebook recruit a philosopher to help interpret some of the demanding and unprecedented ethical and sociological challenges it faces.
"No company in the world has ever attracted 500 million users, and they are having to come to terms, at lightning speed, with what is good and what is abhorrent behaviour. Aristotle and Plato struggled with that – and the average age at Facebook is 28."
Where the Twitterati draw the line
Zoe Margolis, blogger
While I'm very active on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, I have so far avoided all the location-based tools on my phone. Primarily, this is because I do not want to publicly announce where I am - I wish to protect my privacy and safety - but also because I don't want to bombard people with incessant, dull, information; I've unfollowed people on Twitter and Facebook due to their too-frequent (and, might I say, very annoying) Foursquare updates being fed through to their timelines.I can see the point of location tools – they're an easy way to connect people who might otherwise be unaware of their proximity to their friends – but given the amount of information we already share using social networking sites, it almost seems like overload to add yet another method of input, and it's pretty much redundant if not all of your friends/social circle are using the same tool.
I have some major concerns with Facebook Places though and believe it is a huge threat to people's privacy. It is already live in users' settings(though the feature has not yet been rolled out in the UK) and while there is the option of limiting the location info to friends only, they have to de-select the automatically enabled "Include me in 'People Here Now' after I check in" box in order to opt out of their location being included on a public list for all to see.
In addition to this, people's friends can "check' " them into locations, so even if someone has limited the information about themselves that they are sharing, there might still be a breach of their privacy from others.
Most of my friends on Facebook have never heard of Foursquare or Gowalla, let alone used a location-based tool on their mobile phones; I assume the majority of people who use Facebook are similar. Given this, it concerns me that Facebook Places appears to be lacking transparency about privacy. The ability to change the settings to ensure personal information is protected seems more geared to the tech-savvy, than the lay-person; I fear many people will discover their privacy has been breached only after the event.
Privacy on any social networking site or location-sharing tool should start off being intact: 100% protection, with the chance to opt-in to less privacy, should you wish to share information with others. Facebook seems to take the opposite view, making the default position little/no privacy with the need to opt-out; I won't be using Facebook Places any time soon.
I don't believe total privacy is possible so I never telling anybody anything on line that I wouldn't be happy for the nation to know (if it was interested!).
I think some people are so hungry for celebrity they're happy not to have a private life at all. I'm very careful with my tweets. People can never be quite sure whether they're true or false, and I never reveal when I'm going to be away.
Sorry this is so short but I'm off to Portugal now for five months. Only joking.
I probably spend too much time online, sharing details about my life with anyone who has the remotest interest in my music. I don't like the idea of letting people know exactly where I am right this second, but as my fans tend to be fairly sane and unstalkerish, I feel comfortable letting them know what I'm up to in a general sense.
I don't use Foursquare or any applications which might reveal my geographical co-ordinates, although I am often easily locatable, as I play advertised concerts. I did, however, recently delete my personal Facebook profile, as that seemed to be a cluster of unnecessarily pertinent information about my life and the people I share it with, as well as being a colossal waste of time which could be better spent telling people on Twitter that I prefer the Henry vacuum cleaner to the Dyson.
Graham Linehan, comedy writer:
I always hated Facebook because it made me very uncertain about what I was and wasn't sharing with the world. The privacy settings were, famously, a bit of a maze, and seemed subject to sudden changes that you hadn't agreed to. I felt like one day I might open up the site to see a picture of myself in bed asleep with my wife, like in Hidden'.
Twitter is different because it forces you to be very selective with what you choose to share, and so forces social media back to a more private place. I personally don't tweet much stuff about my home life, because I don't want to accidentally tweet something stupid like "Holiday starts tomorrow!" along with a geotag to my home address. So my tweets are generally links to things I find funny or interesting, and my home life only gets a look-in when something truly interesting or funny happens.
Once I made a mistake and posted my home number while trying to send a direct (private) message to someone and we had to change it, but that was a valuable lesson to learn early on, because now I'm a lot more careful with what I put out there. It wasn't too much of a problem, though. We only got two or three callers who hung up as soon as my wife said "Hello, Dreambeds". I asked her who Dreambeds were and she said "Dunno. I suppose they sell beds."
I think people should start to claw back as much privacy as they can. Services such as Twitter show that it's possible to share selectively. Sharing selectively should be the default setting on every social network service. Which, again, is why you won't see me on Facebook any time soon.
John Prescott, politician
Twitter has been a revelation. In the past if I needed to get message out I'd have to convince a paper to publish it. Now I can tweet my thoughts and, if interesting, it'll get pick up. My Milburn tweet was running on rolling news within 10 minutes.
I share a lot of content like my blogs and vlogs along with links to stories and virals from others I like. Twitter is also great to run campaigns and organise tweetups.
We did the first pastiche of the Cameron airbrushed posters, which then inspired mMyDavidCameron.com. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people were doing their own versions. It destroyed Ashcroft's poster campaign and cost nothing.
And when the founder of the National Bullying Helpline said people were bullied in No10, someone tweeted me a link to the industrial tribunal which proved she was accused of bullying herself! It killed the story within 24 hours.
I've found Twitter to be a fantastic way to communicate, learn from others and show the real me, not the distorted view peddled by the media.
But I'm not convinced about geolocation applications. You have to have some privacy.
Suzanne Moore, journalist
Don't mistake personal information for honesty. Personas are created and people play as well as tweet their hearts out. If you don't want to bare your soul you don't have to, but the dividing line between public and private is now generational, one that neither mainstream culture nor government appears to understand.
I don't much care what people think of me and was wondering who some guy on MasterChef was the other day on Twitter and wondering if I had slept with him. Turns out I hadn't which was a relief. And a joke!