Facebook Not as Private as You Might Think

Aug 28, 2007
Nicole A. Ozer

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

The online social networking service Facebook is a popular way to build and maintain groups of friends, family, and colleagues online. Many of the site's users post photo albums of their lives for friends and family. Even more include significant personal information on their own individual profile page- information such as age, relationship status, hobbies, job information, and even address and phone number.

Recently, Facebook acknowledged that it is developing a system to examine the information users post in their profile, groups memberships, and friend networks in order to create a more targeted advertising system.

If you change your relationship status on Facebook from "in a relationship"to "single," you might go from seeing ads for engagements rings to seeing some for dating services.

If you fill out the movies section of your profile with mostly horror films, you might start seeing ads for Alfred Hitchcock movies or Stephen King books.

If you join any of the thousands of political groups on Facebook or list your political preferences, you could get targeted with direct advertisements. Political groups could try to target users based upon their personal beliefs or the military could advertise to physically active young people that support the Iraq War. Already the CIA has used its own Facebook profile and group to recruit future employees from Facebook's primarily young, college-educated user base.

Facebook users have often felt the illusion of privacy because unlike most social networking sites, Facebook profiles are generally only viewable by other users that go to the same school, work at the same company, or are somehow already connected to the user in some way. In fact, Facebook was originally open only to students at select universities, but has since made the service available to everyone.

Many of Facebook's users say that they enjoy Facebook specifically because it provides this slightly more closed system than other networking sites, suggesting that their online privacy is of concern. When Facebook introduced a feature last year that automatically reported each user's activity to their friends, those users revolted and Facebook was left scrambling to build better privacy controls.

Facebook may feel private to some people. But, of course, it isn't. Even without targeted advertising, once you put information up on Facebook, you do not know where it will end up or how it might be used.

Although Facebook's privacy policy says that it limits the availability of your information to third parties, it also says that Facebook may share that information with "other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies" in order to follow the law.

Thanks to some pre-Internet Supreme Court cases such as Smith v. Maryland, the Fourth Amendment does not apply to information held by a third parties like Facebook. The government does not need to have a court-ordered warrant to obtain your personal information held by Facebook- it just needs to ask for it with a subpoena.

In the future, the information you have stored on Facebook could come back to haunt you. Even if you delete your profile, Facebook holds onto your information for what they decide is a "reasonable" amount of time.

Beyond Facebook, other companies are building massive searchable databases of personal information gleaned from sites like Facebook and the internet at large, and even searching through caches of pages long since deleted.

Some companies, such as Polar Rose and Riya, are even using facial recognition software to identify the people in images on the internet. That means that if you're photographed and the image is put online somewhere like Facebook, it might be linked to you and the rest of your online information, even without your knowledge.

Take a look at Facebook's privacy policy. It might make you start thinking before you type.