You Haven’t Got Much in your Facebook Profile

Over the past few months it seems like everybody has been getting accounts on Facebook, indeed BBC News recently reported that membership has grown by more than 500%.

As with MySpace, I’d generally resisted signing up for an account, however the issue with Facebook is that only members can see information, so when groups I am involved in decide to use Facebook the only way people can access information is to sign up to Facebooka classic example of the walled garden idea that AOL tried and failed with years ago. Unfortunately, the only way to access that stuff is to step into the walled garden, and hand your information to Facebook.

I’ve only put the absolute minimum of information in, and Beth hasn’t signed up at all. Needless to say, that’s produced some grumbling from some quarters, but I don’t really see the point in duplicating in Facebook a whole load of information that is elsewhere. Then I found out some more that made me really rather glad that I hadn’t provided anything else, and that Beth wasn’t on at all…

Jen was having a similar issue as me, with people she knew joining the networks and moving their online presence within the walled gardens. Then she discovered something altogether more worrying about Facebook policy.

First take a look at the Facebook terms and conditions:

By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing.

Basically, anything I might upload is automatically licensed to Facebook to do anything with for any purpose, and they can sub-license it to anybody else too. The next sentence states that you can remove your content and that revokes the license, but that they then say that your user content will remain in their archives.

But that’s not the really worrying bit – if you consider all the information you can add to Facebook it can produce a fairly detailed picture of you to allow advertisers to target adverts to your personal interests. The Facebook privacy policy says as such:

Facebook may use information in your profile without identifying you as an individual to third parties. We do this for purposes such as aggregating how many people in a network like a band or movie and personalizing advertisements and promotions so that we can provide you Facebook. We believe this benefits you. You can know more about the world around you and, where there are advertisements, they’re more likely to be interesting to you. For example, if you put a favorite movie in your profile, we might serve you an advertisement highlighting a screening of a similar one in your town. But we don’t tell the movie company who you are.

However the next paragraph is somewhat more worrying:

We may use information about you that we collect from other sources, including but not limited to newspapers and Internet sources such as blogs, instant messaging services, Facebook Platform developers and other users of Facebook, to supplement your profile.

Effectively they are saying that over and above what you give them, they will collect other information about you from outside Facebook including elsewhere on the internet, in newspapers and anywhere else.

Back in December 2005, two MIT students produced a paper looking at Facebook privacy – certainly worth a read in terms of the privacy issues, but also in relation to the amounts of personally identifiable information that some people reveal on the site. Just consider for a moment what a goldmine of a one-stop-shop for personal information Facebook could be…

Jen then posted a video which she had been sent. As she says, it is maybe a bit alarmist in places, but it does highlight the basic issues well…

On the basis of that video, Jen decided to remove her account – but it seems that Facebook is like the Hotel California in that you can “check out any time you like, but you can never leave.â€? The closest you can get is to deactivate the account, but if you log back in, it will come back to life again. Thankfully I’ve not given them much.

So hopefully that explains why I haven’t got much in my Facebook profile, and why there won’t be. It also goes to highlight once again how careful you have to be with the information you give out about yourself on the internet.

8 thoughts on “You Haven’t Got Much in your Facebook Profile”

  1. I’ve been following this issue — I was tipped off by your “link blog” column — as I have some strong feelings on issues of privacy and transparency.

    I’m concerned both with the extraordinary powers that Facebook grants itself over its users data – and with the affiliations with global intelligence services that Facebook appears to have. However, I have to question whether anything is really being lost with Facebook.

    You captured the point nicely when you said “I don’t really see the point in duplicating in Facebook a whole load of information that is elsewhere.” If you bundle all your personal information into a Facebook profile, are you really allowing access to anything new? Yes, you are making it dead easy for anyone who has access to Facebook’s databases to compile information on you – but perhaps all you are giving “them” is a bit of convenience: I’m sure you are well aware of the power (and pervasiveness) of data-mining techniques. Ask yourself exactly what can be found out about you already. Your place of work, your political and religious leanings, the kind of car you drive, who you’re married to (what she does professionally, where, her country of origin), the name of your household pet, your holiday destinations, a myriad of personal photos, your friends, (at one point which I warned you about and you have thankfully since removed) the exact GPS location of your home, and enough clues that someone might put together a reasonable estimate of your socio-economic status. This is all information you have voluntarily given up on the Internet. All it takes is a little reading and a little attention.

    Don’t get me wrong, Facebook is a scary example of the loss of privacy on the internet. I am rabidly against the abuse of information by corporations and governments. I like my privacy, and I don’t see why anyone should know the particulars of my life.

    I think that for the most part, however, that particular horse left the barn some time ago.

  2. I think that is a key difference.

    You can build up a fairly good picture of me from various sources online, but you have to work at it somewhat as a lot of it has to be derived from, for example, trawling through my blog postings. Something a human could do – but probably not something automated.

    The thing about Facebook is that it effectively pre-packages and structures a lot of stuff straight off – check out the sections in the MIT paper containing the code to automatically trawl the Facebook database for information.

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