Facebook & (the lack of) Privacy

Facebook logoTwo weeks back, while speaking at SAScon, I said in a panel there that “Facebook is the scariest shit I’ve seen in years”, related to their latest updates. I also said it was a lawsuit waiting to happen, coming from the European Union. I was right. Well, not entirely, it’s not a lawsuit yet. I referred to a blog post on State of Search by my buddy Bas about Privacy, Facebook & Google. He made a very good analogy to real life:

Imagine this: you are buying a bread in the supermarket which has discount passes. That means they know what you bought. You payed with your bank card, so the bank now knows where you spent your money. Meanwhile you get gas outside of the supermarket so the bank now knows you came with the car, bought the bread and had gas. The gas station also knows which kind of gas and the fact that you decided to buy that candy-bar which was staring at you next to the counter. All bits of information which are separately not that important. But now here’s one company which allows you to say whether or not you liked the services. In return, they store every bit of information, so the bread, the candybar, the gas, all of it. And then they sell, or give away, that data to a third party, lets say a gym.

I guess now you get why it scares me? Luckily, the Article 29 Data Protection Working Party (*cough* nice name *cough*) said in their letter:

Social networks needed to have a default setting in which access to profile information and information about users’ connections were “limited to self-selected contacts”.

There’s no word not to be misunderstood there, and I fully agree. Especially in the light of recent developments, allowing people to search for updates from outside Facebook. Weird thing is, I actually only started to use Facebook a bit better a couple of weeks back, on the day of the F8 developer conference where they announced these changes. I see the possibilities for marketing on & with Facebook a bit better now, and understand the power it has for advertisers. Those advertisers get that as well, it turns out, comScore says Facebook served up 176.3 billion ads to U.S. customers in Q1, being 16.2% of the market.

So I hope they get this fixed. I don’t want to do away with Facebook, not just yet, I do want them to change their way of thinking about and dealing with privacy though, and not just now, but for all eternity.


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50 Responses

  1. Ben GriffithsBy Ben Griffiths on 14 May, 2010

    Great analogy. I deleted (not deactivated) my Facebook account months ago. It would take a lot of convincing to bring me back.

  2. Robert VignoliBy Robert Vignoli on 14 May, 2010

    Yoast, I do agree with you that this is scary shit. As most people on Facebook don’t even REALLY comprehend what they are doing or what it REALLY means when they “like” a service or product. But again as an internet marketer targeting potential clients for our massage business it is great to be able to “see” whether people are getting massages or not. I recently told my girlfriend that, we needed to re-evaluate our exposure on Facebook.

    I do have 1 question, Yoast. If after we “like” a service or product and decide later to “un-like” that brand does it stop our exposure or once damage is done its done?

    • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 14 May, 2010

      Don’t know Robert. Btw, I just removed the link from your comment, please don’t do that.

  3. The Longest Way HomeBy The Longest Way Home on 14 May, 2010

    What worries me also is the google effect similar to facebook. Have Gmail account, analytics, docs, and so on. It’s all linked. As is you data monitored to provide the best advertising chances of you clicking and / or buying.

    It’s nearly as painful as the search home page defaulting to whatever country you are in and throwing up relevant data from there. It travel, this is annoying. Yes, I click .com. But on yahoo it’s hard to do.


  4. RizzBy Rizz on 14 May, 2010

    I’m also a heavy user of all these social services… i also fear for the average users.
    Atleast i have a clue what i’m up for.

  5. Rick @ Resell Rights Ebook StoreBy Rick @ Resell Rights Ebook Store on 15 May, 2010

    I agree with you. Facebook needs to address these issues quickly and once and for all.

    Facebook can be a great tool for both personal and business use. But I for one have deleted my account a while back when these changes started to be seen. If and when Facebook follows good privacy practices I will return.

  6. NinaBy Nina on 15 May, 2010

    I don’t have a facebook account since I think they collect way too much data, always personalized data, so a big difference to google in my opinion. When looking for a job some personal details human resources shouldn’t know about could break your neck, it’s very scary that many people seem to think the internet is still anonymous…they complain about cookies being evil, but tell the world how much they drank at the last party.

  7. SimonaBy Simona on 15 May, 2010

    I’ve migrated all my content over to (click on my name for the link, I don’t want to blatantly publicize it here) – I only share with those I choose and I can hide/show whatever I want. It’s built on strong privacy controls (with no silly applications that steal your info!)

    • darkgrandBy darkgrand on 17 May, 2010

      Good call Simona :)

  8. Sci-Fi-SiBy Sci-Fi-Si on 15 May, 2010

    Yup agreed! I’ve been telling my friends for years to stay away. The FBI and Communist Russia were never able to gather the information Facebook has gathered in just a few years.

    In my opinion it’s a dangerous site if that information ever fell in to the wrong hands (and who’s to say it won’t) we can rest assured that the private lives of millions of people are in the benevolent hands of Capitalist directors that would sell out any time of the day of night to the highest bidder.

    Can you imagine if Hitler had access to Facebook? Think you, any of your friends or any one you know would live? Do you think anyone could slip off the grid?

  9. Dave DoolinBy Dave Doolin on 16 May, 2010

    It’s the beginning of the end of “private privacy.”

    Now, if you want privacy, you have to announce it. Not only that, you have to specify how much of what kind of privacy you want.


    Watcha hiding?

  10. Tym BarkerBy Tym Barker on 16 May, 2010

    There is no more privacy – get over it. It’s not Facebook’s fault, they just happen to be a public example pushing the edge right now.

    Having said that, I do believe that the people running Facebook are pretty arrogant and clueless in many ways, but that’s another discussion.

    Assume EVERYTHING is public knowledge, even the last time you went to the bathroom. Change your mindset to accept this. Live your life doing what’s right and fair. Make this work FOR you, and learn to ignore all the noise that’s coming.

    • Simply Don't Get ItBy Simply Don't Get It on 18 May, 2010

      It makes me puke when I hear people with your attitude. Get over it? No, you can get on it. I prefer a world less like 1984 or Brave New World.

  11. GarethBy Gareth on 17 May, 2010

    I agree with Tym Barker. I feel people are over reacting. What’s wrong with targeted advertising this very site has loads of it. People have limited amounts of time and cash.

    If governments get there hands on this data then so be it. If you haven’t done anything wrong then your in the clear. If you are acting illegally then you are aware of the laws in that country and have to live by them.

    • Guy who likes privacyBy Guy who likes privacy on 17 May, 2010

      You are exactly the type of citizen the government wants.

    • Oliver NielsenBy Oliver Nielsen on 18 May, 2010

      Gareth, you are the most naive person I’ve encountered for a long time. Congratulations!

      What you don’t understand, is that “what’s right” and “what’s wrong” can be changed by the government, so that all of a sudden you did something wrong after all, by for example protesting against something.

      But I assume you’ve never protested.

    • Simply Don't Get ItBy Simply Don't Get It on 18 May, 2010

      Another real genius. Keep putting your head back in the sand. Oh, first though “your papers please”

  12. Gunnar AndreassenBy Gunnar Andreassen on 17 May, 2010

    I think you’re right to a degree – some info sholuld be deafult private.

    • Guy who likes privacyBy Guy who likes privacy on 17 May, 2010

      I think all info collecting should be upfront. I think the default should be total privacy (just common courtesy and civility). If a company wants to capture personal info then it should be completely clear and based on opt-in. They can incentive information gathering if they like. That’s the free market. Two consenting parties mutually benefiting. Also, if it limits service to have total privacy settings, simply tell the user. Then they can make choices that suit them. That’s in my ideal world anyway. All of the small print and mile long privacy language kind of stinks.

      Of course, real privacy is likely not going to happen. Common courtesy and civility are in scare supply, IMO. No I am not an old guy being nostalgic for the good old days. I am just making observations. I deleted my personal facebook after 1 week of use. But if you are cool with an organization know a huge amount about you and developing psychological profiles on you, go for it.

  13. Jennie MolphyBy Jennie Molphy on 17 May, 2010

    I don’t think there will be any stemming the flow of personal data. If it’s not facebook or social media, it’s recommendation engines where you shop, banks where transaction history show a huge amount about you etc.
    But what’s interesting is how it will be used in the future and of course there are not so benign possibilities should there be an ideological intent other than the furthering of consumerism.
    Before mass media, people’s options were limited due to the lack of consumer or media products & services. In the future, they may not ‘really’ have options either, as they have been so targeted by advertisers showing them what they think they want!

  14. Malcolm SleathBy Malcolm Sleath on 17 May, 2010

    The problem with the ‘what have you got to hide?’ argument is that what might seem right and fair today might not be what people think is right and fair tomorrow. Social norming can be a great power for good, but it can also be used for evil ends. If a politician has his or her career ruined as a result of a youthful indiscretion we tend to write it off as part of the game. But this is likely to be happening to many more people.

    It is often the unintended consequences that prove to be most significant in the long run. How many of us seriously read the terms and conditions (let alone understand them) when downloading the latest cool piece of ‘free’ software?

  15. GarethBy Gareth on 17 May, 2010

    “what might seem right and fair today might not be what people think is right and fair tomorrow.”

    Is it not the case that in the future everyone will have a number of what are currently judged as embarrassing moments from their past uncovered and that it will become such a norm/ common as to be meaningless.

  16. RichardBy Richard on 17 May, 2010
  17. Eliminar CelulitisBy Eliminar Celulitis on 17 May, 2010

    I’ve never seen it from that point of view. The analogy is scaring, that’s for sure. The thing is, what should we do?

    PD: Joast, when reaching the end of line os this text box, characters appear of site the box. If u want a screenshot I’ll send it to you.

  18. Anders R TokyoBy Anders R Tokyo on 17 May, 2010

    Google – gmail – serves ads based on the content of emails sent to or from me.

    And these people made a fuss about Chinese Secret Police hacking some gmail accounts. Google are doing it themselves with my gmail account. They are hacking my private messages for their own revenue (and who else’s?)!

    How about that for scary!!!

    Maybe I should put my faith in God, SORRY I mean Google?

    • @autoconversionBy @autoconversion on 17 May, 2010

      Stop using Gmail then and use something like Thunderbird which is local. It’s free like Google.

  19. AlvinBy Alvin on 17 May, 2010

    I dropped off Facebook a couple of years ago – due to the high stalker count that i was increasingly encountering.

    Since then it has been invaded by a million marketing guru’s that evangelise its benefits while completely ignoring the downside. If i am approached by a business in a social media environment it is a good bet i am not buying, based on the insidiousness of the initial contact.

    Facebook is becoming more about advertising and less about people interacting. And seriously i don’t need to know that much about people i already found uninteresting and dull in real life. I also don’t need to play mindless games or send inane hugs, kisses, beers, cheers, clowns or chickens to them in messages.

  20. Mark @ Alchemy UnitedBy Mark @ Alchemy United on 17 May, 2010

    I’m with Tym. If you’re really that concerned then don’t put it online. Period! Regardless of what your setting may or may not be there are always misunderstandings and/or coding issue that could eventually expose what you thought would be “private”.

    Finally, what I think is even more interesting is the level of trust people put into a brand like Facebook. There are countless “traditional” brands who have worked years, if not a lifetime to gain the trust that FB has in a matter of a couple or so years. On top of that FB has in enough cases violated that trust. Yet no change. In fact, it just gets bigger and bigger, eh?

    What is it about self-expression (or is it exhibitionism?) that drives people to act *not* in their own best interest? Or is it (in their heart and mind) actually in their best interest and it just so happens to trump privacy, etc? Is this a digital form of riot mentality?

  21. Tym BarkerBy Tym Barker on 17 May, 2010

    @Malcolm said: “… The problem with the ‘what have you got to hide?’ argument is that what might seem right and fair today might not be what people think is right and fair tomorrow.”

    I agree completely. But we can’t stop this change. We might slow it down, but we can’t stop it. Technology has created too great a shift. So my point is that people may as well get with the program.

    @Gareth said: “… it will become such a norm/ common as to be meaningless.”

    Exactly! It will become normal for everyone to have everything out in the open – the good, the bad, and the ugly. At this point hopefully society will start to ignore all the little crap (as long as it doesn’t physically hurt anyone) – either that or we’ll fall into the next dark ages.

    This is going to be a HUGE shift in our society. It may take 10 or 20 years to evolve fully. Unfortunately, during that time some people will get stuck in scary prehistoric caves, but I believe you can make this work FOR you.

    You’re going to have to change your mindset and not be afraid to “let it all hang out”. What the heck – it’s all hangin’ out when you go through US airport security anyway :)

    • Guy who likes privacyBy Guy who likes privacy on 17 May, 2010

      “it’s all hangin’ out when you go through US airport security anyway :)”

      Exactly…and that is also very sad. Seems like the phrase “Mind your own business” has lost all meaning. Seems people feel entitled to be into the lives of others. Guess I just see privacy as more sacred than most.

      So I suppose the real question is this. When is it enough?

      • Tym BarkerBy Tym Barker on 17 May, 2010

        “…and that is also very sad. Seems like the phrase “Mind your own business” has lost all meaning.”

        I’m totally with you.

        But I don’t see “privacy” coming back either. So my prediction is that if we embrace “letting it all hang out”, and it goes far enough, there won’t be anything for people to stick their noses into – because everyone’s dirty laundry will be common place and none of it will stand out anymore.

  22. Susan MartinBy Susan Martin on 17 May, 2010

    I agree Joast, it is scary, but instead of having “big brother” watching us )as so many of my generation feared), it’s people trying to sell us stuff by knowing everything about our buying habits. This concerns me and is a turnoff, but “buyer beware”, don’t put stuff out there if you don’t want that to happen, it’s the new way that marketing is being done and I don’t know if there will be any turning back.

    My biggest concern is what’s shared by teenagers on facebook, and how unsavory characters may try to use their personal information to cause them harm.

  23. Anthony DeFreitasBy Anthony DeFreitas on 17 May, 2010

    Zuckerberg has pushed the envelope from the beginning http://bit.ly/98Ww2j

    Mark really does believe very much in transparency and the vision of an open society and open world, and so he wants to push people that way.

    It will be interesting to see if enough people rebel to force Mark to alter his vision.

  24. @autoconversionBy @autoconversion on 17 May, 2010

    Call me naive but I don’t see the stir up here. What the hell did everyone expect? Our society is built on commerce and the more a company knows about its customer the more impacting it can be.

    You don’t have to press the LIKE button but quite frankly I prefer marketers know about me more acutely so I can be see ads for stuff that actually interests me.

  25. Nicolaj B. MüllertzBy Nicolaj B. Müllertz on 17 May, 2010

    so true, its scary :)

  26. Nick ReynaBy Nick Reyna on 17 May, 2010

    well i saw this coming when i signed up a long time ago for facebook and noticed that certain keywords of mine listed in my hobbies section or favorite music would trigger a dead on balls accurate keyword ad on the right. this scares me in a sense in so many levels of privacy, i feel like im back in high school and now big brother has all the tools to “label” someone and or keep up with each and every single thing we do day in & day out. google does the same thing by keeping everything you search for up to 18months and attaches your ip to the search queries. lets all throw them for a loop and start using spoof ip’s.

  27. TrafficColemanBy TrafficColeman on 17 May, 2010

    Scary shit is not the word to use, I will say its social marketing gone mad. We all know that this
    type of site will just be another one hit wonder, and everyone will be over it in a few years.

    Yes I use facebook, YouTube and Twitter..but I use them wisly, given just enough info about
    myself to get by.. Y ..because the privacy stuff on FaceBook is horrible and will get them in
    trouble sooner or later.

    Peace Joost, You know I love your site..

    TrafficColeman “Signing Off”

  28. AlanBy Alan on 18 May, 2010

    I came cross this article yesterday.
    Facebook founder called trusting users dumb f*cks

  29. oktopiansahBy oktopiansah on 18 May, 2010

    for me facebook it’s for fun and for increase site traffic only

  30. Chris SchryerBy Chris Schryer on 18 May, 2010

    I agree it’s scary how much any compnay can find out about you, internet or otherwise. What’s really scary, though, is how blind so much of the public is to this, and how prone they are to let themselves be manipulated by the people grabbing their info. Things like Facebook, Youtube, etc are all things we westerners have become used to having access to, and it seems many people feel entitled to. Many people (including many commenters on this post) seem to think that they should be able to use the service with their *own* terms. They cannot. Facebook provides a service, and benefits from it. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. Or learn to use it in a way that limits the ammount of information you give away. If Facebook was a site you had to use, by law or for work or something, then there would be serious questions about them exploiting users. As users can choose to opt-out, then it’s their own problem. It’s not like Facebook lies about it or hides it (any more then, say, Microsoft does).

  31. Jamie HBy Jamie H on 19 May, 2010

    I would not blame FaceBook per say, they are simply supplying the system users choose to use. This would be the equivalent of blaming Budweiser for an alcoholics behavior. The difference being the level of education required from Budweiser informing it’s users of the potential negative effects of drinking. In my view the change that needs to happen is a higher level of disclosure on the part of FB to it’s users in a language everyone can understand, this way all users can make an educated choice.

  32. Doug TaylorBy Doug Taylor on 19 May, 2010

    I thought you could go into the Privacy settings and shut down your facebook page from being listed in Google SERPS. And restrict your profile and FB info to be seen only be “Friends”. If that is the case and you use those settings, I don’t really have a problem with what Facebook does. It’s up to us to protect ourselves if the tools exist.

  33. LuciBy Luci on 20 May, 2010

    Facebook is getting a bit out of control – although I try to subscribe to the ‘if i don’t want people to know about it’ rule, there is also a difference between my friends and family seeing something, and the same data being given/used by a 3rd party to try and sell me stuff, or for a government to learn more about my habits..

  34. r4 kaartBy r4 kaart on 20 May, 2010

    Yeah it scary, but is there privacy left on the internet? Anything is stored these days. and when you complain you get companies like google that say, if you’re not doing anything wrong
    you won’t have anything to hide.. I also think that Bas made an excellent post.

  35. andreas kramersBy andreas kramers on 21 May, 2010

    You took the words right out of my mouth. I’ve been thinking this for years and it is the main reason I don’t like to sign up with social networks. Well not entirely true… I don’t like to be bothered or found by people I don’t wan’t to know (anymore).
    But as for the marketing side of it, it has a big future ahead and I guess that if you don’t use it in your seo you’ll leave money on the table.
    Anyway, I’ve bookmarked your site, you write a lot of stuff I can learn from.
    All the best,

  36. JonkarloBy Jonkarlo on 22 May, 2010

    Good article, how about building an open source social application? I am sure there should be some projects out there!

  37. NutrisystemBy Nutrisystem on 25 May, 2010

    Face book scares the crap out of me too. It is amazing the sort of things people post on there and how easily you can find them on google. I deleted my accounts but I am sure a lot of my personal information is still on there and is probably searchable.

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