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.