May 16 2008

Data isn’t ‘private’ if you put it on a social networking site

Published by at 5:55 am under Privacy

Private: confined to particular persons or groups or providing privacy; “a private place”; “private discussions”; “private lessons”; “a private club” … i.e. something a social network isn’t.

I get annoyed with people who use the word ‘privacy’ when talking about their information on a social networking site; by definition, anything put on a Facebook or MySpace is there for sharing and is no longer private. If you want to keep your information private, don’t put it somewhere that’s specifically designed around the concept of blasting your info to as many people as possible in the first place!

We’ve got mashables and all the other technologies that are designed to share our information, or data portability as it’s called. People want to be able take their information from one application to another as easily and transparently as possible. That’s great, it’s wonderful for sharing information. It’s also about as far away from ‘privacy’ as you can get.

There’s a big hubbub in the blogosphere because Facebook is blocking or limiting the amount of information other sites, like Google’s Friend Connect, can collect from the Facebook API. Facebook claims it’s about privacy; they believe users should have the right to control where their information goes and how it’s being used. I agree with that statement, but if someone is putting their personal information on Facebook, then they’ve made the choice of giving up that control, since any screen scraper or search engine can be used to pull down the information with very little effort. While I hate agreeing with Michael Arrington, he’s right; Facebook’s decision to limit what other social networks can pull from the FB API is about protecting Facebook’s business model and has nothing at all to do with their user’s privacy. Facebook wants to squeeze every possible cent from the value of your information before they let anyone else have it. I don’t blame them, I just don’t have to give them anything to work with.

Robert Scoble is wrong, privacy isn’t dead; people are just willing to give up privacy for the convenience of being part of a social network. If someone wants their data to be private, they shouldn’t be putting it online. Privacy isn’t dead, but you’ve made a decision to give up your privacy when you put it online. You have to weigh the value of having that social interaction versus what your information is worth to you. Most people make that decision without any conscious thought, which isn’t Facebook’s fault. Not everyone is a professional paranoid who spend a large amount of their time thinking about these issues, but everyone should at least be aware of what they’re putting online.

The Internet, and especially a social network, is designed around the concept of information sharing. Privacy is about controlling your information and controlling who has access to your information. If you put that information on Facebook, you’ve ceded that control to them, and even they don’t have that much control over who can access it. You can control where and when you put your information online, but once it’s there, privacy isn’t applicable. You’ve chosen to put it in a public forum, therefore your information obviously wasn’t something you wanted to keep private in the first place.

One response so far

One Response to “Data isn’t ‘private’ if you put it on a social networking site”

  1. Lauraon 27 Oct 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Nice post on screen scrapers, simple and too the point :), I use python for simple html screen scrapers, but for larger projects i used extractingdata.com http://www.extractingdata.com/screen%20scraper.htm which worked great, they build custom screen scrapers and data extracting programs

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