NYT: When Everyone’s a Friend, Is Anything Private?

7 March 2009

The New York Times has an article on social network privacy issues including the risks of third party applications: When Everyone’s a Friend, Is Anything Private?, New York Times, 7 March 2009 (by Randall Stross, Digital Domain column).

FACEBOOK has a chief privacy officer, but I doubt that the position will exist 10 years from now. That’s not because Facebook is hell-bent on stripping away privacy protections, but because the popularity of Facebook and other social networking sites has promoted the sharing of all things personal, dissolving the line that separates the private from the public.

Facebook’s default settings for new accounts protect users in some ways. For instance, the information in one’s profile is restricted to friends only; it is not accessible to friends of friends. But Facebook sets few restrictions by default on what third-party software can see in a network of friends. Members are not likely aware that unless they change the default privacy settings, an application installed by a friend can vacuum up and store many categories of a member’s personal information.

David E. Evans, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Virginia, says he wishes that Facebook would begin with more restrictions on the information that outside software developers can reach. For 15 of 19 information categories, Facebook sets a default setting of “share,” which means the information can be pulled out of Facebook and stored on servers outside its control. These 15 categories include activities, interests, photos and relationship status.

“Facebook could set defaults erring on the side of privacy instead of on the side of giving your information away,” he said.

Chris Kelly, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, defends its current settings, saying it “gives users extensive control over the applications they choose to interact with.” He also said Facebook had removed “thousands” of applications that members deemed untrustworthy.

In Professor Evans’s view, however, banishment of malevolent software comes too late: “Once the application has got the data, it’s got it, stored on someone else’s machine.”

The defaults turn out to be crucially important, because few users go to the trouble of adjusting the settings. Asked how many members ever change a privacy setting, Mr. Kelly said 20 percent.