Is social networking suddenly getting all (gulp) modest about privacy?
Hundreds of thousands of users of the 7.5 million-user Facebook social networking site are protesting new features that they consider an invasion of privacy. Some are planning to boycott the site on September 12 if Facebook doesn't remove some of the features, and a new group called Savefacebook.com has gathered around 86,000 signatures on an online petition calling for Facebook to remove the features and/or give individuals the option to deactivate them.
Facebook this week added continuous "news tickers" of a user's activities and posts on the site. Protesters worry that users other than their friends or intended recipients will get the updates. The News Feed feature updates a personalized news list during the day with the latest headlines of things your friends and social groups are up to -- everything from "Bob added Sue to his Favorites list" to "Your love interest just broke up with her boyfriend" -- and the Mini-Feed feature shows changes in a user's profile and content.
Facebook users on a student-run portal at the University of Mary Washington conceded that when you join Facebook, you do give up some privacy and may involve yourself in some "socially acceptable stalking." But Facebook's feeds take stalking too far, they say: "No one wants their girlfriend or boyfriend knowing when they've commented on a photo, written on a wall, or anything else. No one wants people to see that they've left a group; it could offend someone. No one really wants to see the change in status of someone's love life," according to a post on the portal.
But that's the risk you take when you join a social network, industry experts say. "Facebook members are placing information about themselves online. If you place information about yourself and your life on any server that is connected to the Internet, you cannot hope for it to remain private," says Shane Coursen, senior technical consultant for Kaspersky Lab.
Facebook isn't the only social network to come under fire lately: Rival MySpace.com has battled security breaches (See Social Networking Gone Bad.) and privacy issues. MySpace recently instituted some adult controls on its site in the wake of reports and rising concerns about pedophiles targeting young MySpace users.
So far, the loudest dissenters have been on college campuses, where Facebook got its start. It has since expanded into business professionals and has also tried to attract politicians by inviting candidates, for example, to launch Facebook pages.
"Professionals are probably interested in the News Feeds about their business networking group more than college students are," says David Aitel, president of Immunity. "These days, people switch jobs every couple of years and it's good to keep up on these sorts of things."
Jennifer Simpson, an analyst with the Yankee Group, said the protesters don't always understand that when they post something for just a few friends, it can actually be seen by all of them. "What it's doing is aggregating updates from your friend's Web pages and letting you know those updates," she says. "But only information that was posted."
Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, earlier this week tried to quell users' concerns in his blog. "This is information people used to dig for on a daily basis, nicely reorganized and summarized so people can learn about the people they care about," he wrote in his blog. "You dont miss the photo album about your friends trip to Nepal. Maybe if your friends are all going to a party, you want to know so you can go, too."
He says the new features don't change any Facebook privacy options, and none of the feeds provided are visible to users who couldn't see the information before. "If you turned off your wall to non-friends, no one who is not your friend will be able to see a post on your wall. Your friends can still see it; it hasnt changed," he said in the blog.
Analysts expect Facebook to bow to user pressure and make the feeds optional instead. Facebook did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.
Immunity's Aitel says the uproar over Facebook's new features demonstrates how little awareness users have about privacy and security risks on social networking sites. "All Facebook did was show the user information they already had access to," Aitel says. "This is something a private application could have been [created] to do long ago."
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading