Online friends at what price?

21 July 2008

Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, has written an opinion piece for the Sacramento Bee on social networking privacy: Online friends at what price?: The point of social networking is to share your personal information with the world, The Sacramento Bee, 20 July 2008.

Many of my friends were surprised when I signed up for Facebook. “Why would a privacy advocate put personal information online?” they asked.

“For the same reason that people use the Internet for e-mail or pick up a telephone to make a call,” I explained. “It’s very useful. Of course, there are real privacy issues. We should understand them and fix them.”

Today Facebook is both very useful and a genuine privacy threat. …

Privacy problems have continued to plague the service. In May 2007, Facebook opened up the network for software developers to create applications such as Scrabulous that appear on Facebook pages. Some of these programs are very cool, but that doesn’t answer the privacy problem. Application developers were given access to the detailed personal information of the user as well as the friends of the user. And that means just about everything in your profile, from relationship status and education history to copies of photos and favorite movies. And amazingly, the data of your friends, who did not sign up to install the program, have their data gathered up by Facebook and sent to the developers.

Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Virginia found that Facebook was providing access to far more personal information than was necessary; in fact, information that the developers were not even seeking. As lead researcher Adrienne Felt pointed out, this was a dangerous security practice because it created unnecessary risks for Internet users.