Facebook Privacy in Transition - But Where Is It Heading?

Dec 09, 2009
Nicole A. Ozer

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

The next time you log onto Facebook, you'll be thinking about privacy: how private are your photos, friends, status updates, and personal details, and how public do you actually want them to be?

In response to pressure about its privacy practices, including an ACLU petition signed by over 43,000 concerned Internet users, Facebook has released a new privacy policy, modified its profile and publication privacy controls, and rolled out a "Transition Tool" to guide all 350 million Facebook users through the process of choosing new privacy settings.

To learn more about today's changes and tips on the new privacy controls, visit our resource page, What Does Facebook's Privacy Transition Mean for You?

We're glad to see Facebook finally put privacy front and center for every one of its users. We hope other companies will do the same. But we are concerned that the Transition Tool and other changes actually discourage or eliminate some privacy protections that Facebook users currently employ. And we're still waiting for Facebook to address the privacy issues concerning third party applications that were raised months ago in our petition. Please sign our new petition demanding that Facebook rethink some of today's changes and continue to give you more control over your own information.

Facebook's Privacy Transition: Towards More Privacy - Or Less?

Many of today's changes to Facebook's privacy system are clearly good things. The Transition Tool will force all of Facebook's 350 million users to think about privacy - which is a first. The new publisher control will give users the ability to choose individual privacy settings for each wall post or shared link. And the simplified privacy settings will help users make informed decisions.

But, if what Founder Mark Zuckerberg says in his post is true and Facebook really wants to give users the tools they need to control their information, the new privacy system has some major flaws. We have three primary privacy concerns with the new system:

  • There's more "publicly available information" that you can't control: Before the recent changes, you had the option of exposing only a "limited" profile, consisting of as little as your name and networks, to other Facebook users—and nothing at all to Internet users at large. Now your profile picture, current city, friends list, gender, and fan pages are "publicly available information," which means you have no way to prevent any other Facebook user from viewing this information on your profile, and you can only prevent Internet users from viewing this information by disabling search entirely (which you can't do through the Transition Tool).
  • Facebook is "recommending" that you loosen your privacy settings: For most users, including those who have never changed their Facebook privacy settings, the recommended settings make information less protected and more widely available than the previous default settings. For example, as of last Friday, sensitive information like relationship status and gender preference was available only to your friends by default; now Facebook encourages users to make this information available to "everyone!"
  • The "Transition Tool" does not allow most users to strengthen privacy settings: Facebook's Transition Tool gives you only two choices: keep your current settings or switch to Facebook's recommendations. And since Facebook's recommendations are less private than the previous default settings, most users have to click through to another page of privacy controls in order to strengthen their settings.

We're not the only ones who take issue with some of Facebook's recent changes. Our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation echo many of these concerns: "Not to say that many of the changes aren't good for privacy. But other changes are bad, while a few are just plain ugly."

Visit our resource page, What Does Facebook's Privacy Transition Mean for You?, for more information about today's changes and tips on how to navigate the "transition" and control your own information.

Pay No Attention to the App Behind the Curtain

While Facebook has put a lot of work into changing its profile controls, it fails to address another major privacy issue entirely. As we've pointed out before, there is an 'app gap' that can allow any quiz or application run by you to access information about you and your friends. Even if your Facebook profile is "private," when you take a quiz or run any other application on Facebook, that app can access almost everything in your profile: your religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, pictures, and groups. And these apps may have access to most of the info on your friends' profiles too—which means if your friend takes a quiz, they could be giving away your personal information, even if you've never used an app!

The privacy settings that address this issue remain buried behind too many layers of menus and the new controls still fail to explain what applications can really see. So we're asking you to keep up the pressure on Facebook. If you haven't done so already, please take our Facebook quiz [Facebook login required] to peek behind the curtain—and then share it with your friends!

Keep Pushing Facebook—and Other Companies—to Transition to Better Privacy

Facebook's public attention to privacy and new resources are great - but there's still more they need to do. Please sign our current petition (even if you already signed the first one!) demanding that Facebook address the "app gap" and take further steps to protect your privacy.

And privacy on Facebook is only one part of a bigger picture, and with your help we can build a strong movement for privacy rights on all online sites and services. We hope you'll join us and continue to Demand Your dotRights—your right to control your own personal information in the world of modern technology and online services—as we work together to upgrade privacy protections and give you real control of your personal information. Demand a privacy upgrade: Demand Your dotRights!

Nicole A. Ozer is the Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director with the ACLU of Northern California.