Monday, April 26, 2010

Online Privacy

Recently a friend of mine posted this on her Facebook profile:
WARNING! As of today, there is a new privacy setting called "Instant Personalization" that shares data with non-facebook websites and it is automatically set to "Allow." Go to Account > Privacy Settings > Applications and Websites ...and uncheck "Allow", then repost this to your profile.

A few hours later, another friend posted this:
FYI EVERYONE- There's a site called and it's an online phone book that has a picture of your house, credit score, profession, age, how many people live in the house. Remove yourself by the Privacy button on the bottom right. (passing along, scary stuff!) I personally checked it out and it is really there!! some of the info was off but its there!!! COPY, PASTE AND REPOST

These are basically unrelated issues, but they both touch on something that I don't think people understand very well: Internet privacy. Let's take the first one first, and think about each them a little bit.

If you are using Facebook, some information about you is publicly available, and that's that. There's a lot of stuff that you can hide from public view, but some of it you can't. Your name, for example. Your profile picture. Some of the stuff you are a "fan" of. To find out what of your profile anyone doing a Google search can see, simply log into Facebook, click "Profile", create a bookmark, log back out of Facebook, and then click your bookmark. You may be surprised at what you see... your status updates may be public, for example. There are several levels of security, including "Friends Only", "Friends of Friends", and so on. I won't try to go into very much detail here (because chances are, Facebook will change things and my blog post will wind up being inaccurate) but you really need to look into a few things:
  1. Take a look at Facebook's privacy policy to see if you really agree with everything it says.
  2. Read over articles like this one and this one, which will explain some of the privacy issues to you and maybe help you tweak things.
  3. Really, be aware of your privacy settings. Currently they are under Account > Privacy Settings (like the post mentions) and you might be able to go right there using this link, if you're logged in. But don't look at only that one checkbox; click through every page, and carefully consider every option. Only allow the stuff you really want allowed.
Now, as far as the "Instant Personalization" setting is concerned: my opinion is that the concern is a bit overblown. Basically, what that setting does is it allows sites that you are visiting anyway to know what Facebook knows about you and shares with people who are on Facebook but who are not your "friends." It's how Pandora knew who my friends were when I started messing with it earlier this week; it told me which of my friends prefer Big Band and which of them prefer Sade. When a song from a favorite artist of theirs comes up, I see their Facebook profile picture.

Does that creep you out? Well, then be creeped by this: any child-molester on the Internet has the same access to your information. Every serial killer and wacko can know what "Instant Personalization" knows, just by having a Facebook account and looking you up. Kind of puts Pandora knowing who your buddies are in perspective, doesn't it? If you don't care for that idea, maybe you shouldn't be on Facebook at all. Signing up for Facebook essentially equates to making a very minor celebrity out of you, so expect paparazzi if you go there.

(And if you are worried about Instant Personalization, allow me to introduce you to the privacy implications of Facebook Applications, such as Farmville, Farm Town, Mafia Wars, etc. which have access to much more information than Instant Personalization does. Might want to check those settings, too.)

So let's consider the second post, the one about spokeo. This is a service that compiles publicly-available information and repackages it for sale. The creepiness isn't the spokeo site; that's just plain old commerce. The creepiness is that the information is publicly available somewhere in the first place! Spokeo is like a used bookstore; they don't create the information, and they aren't even the primary source; they just compile it and sell it at a price. In fact, if you check the Snopes article about it, you'll find this link to another panic about a similar site, ZabaSearch, which was freaking people out by doing the exact same thing five years ago (they're still doing it). In fact, I'll add another one: put your land line phone number or address into WhitePages Reverse Lookup and you're likely to find your name (and maybe others who live in your house; it found my wife's name as well). And they'll sell you more information for a price, too. (Cell phone numbers don't turn up the same granularity of information as land lines because of legal differences.) Heck, type your land line phone number into Google, and with one additional click you'll see a map to your house. So the fact is, spokeo isn't anything unique or frightening... or at least it's not unique. It's fairly common on the Internet.

For the record, all of these services have "remove me from your list" functions, but before you get wrapped up in that, consider this: it is possible to get your phone number unlisted from the telephone book, but the majority of people do not. Why? Because you want to be found. The phone book (probably) has your name, phone number, and address in it. That's easily enough information to physically locate you, if someone wants to. And if you've ever told a stranger that it was your birthday, and if you also told him your name, that's just about enough information right there for identity theft (never tell a stranger anything that someone from a bank would ask you as a "security question", particularly your Social Security Number!) In the thoroughly-networked, cameras-everywhere, cell-phone-toting, information-addicted, credit-driven society we live in, information about you is literally in the very air. If you want to get off the grid, throw away that phone with the GPS capabilities, close out your bank accounts and credit cards and go cash-only, and then quit your job and move to the woods, because almost everything you do in this day and age leaves a footprint.

Hundreds of years ago when most of the world was very rural and communities were small, everyone knew everything about one another. To some extent, in small communities (little towns, schools, workplaces, churches) this is often still the case, but otherwise as a society we've somehow gotten the idea that we have some kind of anonymity, that unless we want them to, it's not nice for someone to know things about us. But the fact is, there have always been reams of publicly-available information about each of us out there somewhere. It's how modern society has always functioned. A bank that can't find out anything about you won't lend you money to buy a car; a prospective employer expects the chance to talk to your previous employers to find out if you fit into their organization. We use information to make educated decisions, and computers do nothing more effectively than they store and compare information. Don't be surprised to find details about yourself on the Internet, but do consider which pieces (for example, your Social Security Number) need to be protected, and which pieces need not be guarded as closely. Pick your battles wisely. Otherwise, that cave out in the wilderness might as well be your home.

(To find out what kinds of things about you that Facebook might be sharing with the whole wide world, visit and click the "How do I find my Facebook ID?" link to get started. Most of the categories will likely show you nothing, but check these categories, which might show you some information about yourself or others: "feeds", "likes", "links", "tagged", "posts")