Privacy On The Internet Is Misunderstood

With the recent Facebook announcements, the Google Buzz launch debacle and the Blippy credit card mess, Privacy is being constantly talked about. If you look at those three events, we have three very different definitions of privacy.

Blippy’s issue was thankfully limited to a handful of credit card numbers. However, when your credit card number is leaked then someone may purchase goods on your accounts. Obviously, this is bad. In addition, once a name and credit card number is found, identity theft can be a big issue. Hopefully, Blippy will not have a problem again and any issues will be quickly forgotten.

Facebook’s issue is much different. They are doing several things which make people uncomfortable. First, there is the “instant personalization” on sites like Pandora. I admit, I find the personalization very interesting, but some people have complained that opening up your interests to other sites is a breach of privacy. There is also the addition of connected profiles which links your profile to new community pages. My question is really whether Facebook is doing something wrong, or are they just poorly communicating with their users? There is the potential for identity theft on Facebook, but more because your profile is public and lists your education and possibly your employers. Matching this with some of the other personal information you list could give an identity thief a fighting chance.

Finally, look at Google Buzz and their launch issue. The various connections that used to be private suddenly became public. This is not a huge issue from the identity theft perspective, but it could be potentially embarrassing. Suppose you are looking for a new job, and your boss sees a whole bunch of recruiters appear in your contact list. That is definitely a concern, but nowhere near the issues with Facebook or Blippy.

As you can see, privacy means different things to different people. However, people have started to use the term to beat on various companies when they are unhappy. Let me start by saying, if you post something on the internet, even in a “private” forum, assume that everyone in the world can see it. Nobody forced you to add your interests to your Facebook profile or become a fan of your favorite websites. You did not need to enable Google Buzz. Even when Facebook was “private” and you just showed your information to your friends, your friends could have shared that same information on a different site that was public.

More importantly, Google and Facebook have done nothing to force you to publicly announce your home address and various phone numbers. This has been done by credit card companies for years, and people rarely complain. Credit card companies share your information with anyone willing to buy the list. Facebook is actually trying to help you with recommendations from your friends, with some side benefits for themselves as well. Google is basically doing the same thing.

The problem is not the information that was made public, but the methods behind making things public. Google Buzz’s launch was poorly communicated, so people had no idea that all of their contacts would become public. Users also had limited options initially on disabling Buzz or making their contacts more private. Google moved quickly to fix the issue, but the communication problems tainted the product. Facebook has a history of communication problems, and has generally forced changes onto users. This is definitely bad for the company and causes public outrage, but people are overreacting to the changes. Trying to regulate Facebook is rather silly and Robert Scoble thinks it is too late.

If you are really concerned about privacy, then you can always delete your Facebook account or disable Google Buzz. If you feel that those are drastic responses, you could always remove your interests, schools and other personal information from Facebook. If you feel that is still too drastic, then you are overreacting to the Facebook changes. These sites are only doing what marketers have done for years, selling your interests and purchases to people willing to buy them in the hopes that you buy more products.

12 thoughts on “Privacy On The Internet Is Misunderstood

  1. Good post Rob, especially that closing paragraph.

    Something like the open graph was inevitable. As I’ve said myself this week, we have been crying out for the walled gardens to be broken down and for everything to mesh together. We have gone from disparate networks, through APIs and third party aggregators to this move by facebook – we should have seen it coming and, is probably, the next logical evolutionary step: behavioural aggregation but collated back at the primary service.

    There is a great deal of ignorance and, even, hypocrisy surrounding some of the comments being made and the objections to what fb are doing; many of those objecting are perfectly willing to live their lives in full view of everyone on the web, sharing even the slightest minutiae, and by default virtually waiving their “right” to any online privacy.

    I agree that communication is probably one of the biggest issues here. The functionality went live straight after f8 – a developers conference. Where was the communication to the user? I personally feel that there should have been a bigger lead time and more emphasis on providing the user with the necessary info to make an informed decision; I have no issue with opt-out as long as that option is given right from the very start and is given great prominence – maybe even preventing you from using fb until you have made your decision.

    It could have been handled better but is it REALLY evil?


  2. Colin

    Welcome back! I haven’t seen you here in a while.

    There are some people crying about privacy and deleting their Facebook accounts. I am totally OK with that. But as you say, there is a lot of hypocrisy (maybe not the right word) regarding the Facebook issue.

    The lack of communication after f8 was a killer, and I totally forgot that it is a developer conference. That makes the lack of communication an even bigger issue, because most users probably had no idea that f8 even existed. Interestingly enough, if you go to your profile, you will be forced to choose your links for the connected profile. Why not make the whole “public opt-in” a popup when you login? That would have probably made the changes a non-event. Like you said, it is about getting the choice up front.


  3. Great post 🙂 and I completely agree. Attitudes need to be changed. What we put something online we must assume that anybody can see it.


  4. Rob, I respectfully disagree of the theme that these three events are very different definitions of privacy. They all have different data exposed but the defined privacy aspect all are constant. A user should have a clear understanding up front of what the site/company intends to do with information. All three of these events exposed private information which caught the end user by surprise; some were accidents, one was clearly on purpose and deceptive (see my post that discusses these 3 events last week).

    I’m all for transparency and openness of my information on the web but many others are not as open as the early adopters and we should protect that privacy. It’s the company’s responsibility to have a solid security model to protect consumers and not force them to expose information they do wish to be exposed. To not do so is simply irresponsible and unacceptable.


  5. To add to what manielse said, Facebook’s changes have also made your privacy dependent on what those in your network do. Essentially you have no control or choice at all. Even if you opt out of the most recent changes, any site with the FB social plugin has access to your profile and your network if you logged into FB without logging out.

    I have to agree that it’s ethical and responsible for any business to both disclose what information is publicly available and allow its customers to opt out of such disclosure.


  6. Privacy isn’t about control, it is about freedom. That is the common denominator in all these definitions . The only choice a user has is not to participate. I would like us to be able to participate and still have the freedom to say to companies like facebook that they can’t have access to my information. It’s impossible now. The scale and rate of companies invading our freedom online is incomparable to the physical world.
    Using opt out is evil. It takes away choice. I don’t see why we need to accept this as ‘the way things work’. Do you give up your right to choose that easily in the physical world? Its something worth fighting for imo.


  7. manielse

    We may be arguing about semantics. I believe we agree on the problem being the communication about the changes and the fact that the changes were opt-in by default. I do agree that early adopters should be the ones determining whether this is a good idea. That is an excellent point.


  8. Alexander

    The lack of choice is huge in the Facebook and Google issues. The lack of options, especially in the case of Facebook, is very surprising considering the background of both companies. I am OK with opt-out if you are given a choice up front like Facebook did with the profile linking.

    My main concern with many of the reactions is the automatic assumption that Facebook is doing something evil. I am not saying you are doing that as I have read your blog long enough to know you will have a detailed and thoughtful argument 🙂 I am willing to accept that Facebook made a mistake in this case without completely thinking it through before I go and call them evil.


  9. Interesting post about the disclosure of information on the net. Latelly I have been thinking about the same subject but from a more particullar/different angle. Well my last post is about the reasons that makes people post about personal matters in social networks (even dough they know about the possible perils that disclosure might bring) allowing everybody to get to know abou them. .
    Here is the link if you are interested: (by the way some of the comments are great they open new dimensions to the analysis like the ego, our inner narratives which who we spend our life with, etc.):


  10. You can’t “delete” your facebook account. You can only disable it. Once you remove information from the internet or facebook, it doesn’t make it gone. Once you put something up there, it is always there, forever, no matter what.


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