Selling You on Facebook

“Many popular Facebook apps are obtaining sensitive information about users—and users’ friends—so don’t be surprised if details about your religious, political and even sexual preferences start popping up in unexpected places. “

The Wall Street Journal’s Julia Angwin and Jeremy Singer-Vine have recently written an article exploring how third party apps may have much more access to information than even Facebook realizes. The increasing prevalence of mobile applications means more programs requesting to access personal data. The information requested can range from email address and birthday to sexual preference, religious background, and even current location.
Information sharing across applications initially means convenience. It is annoying to have to create separate user names and passwords and provide the same information multiple times. This is why information sharing has become so popular. However, personal information is valuable. Facebook uses the fortune of personal information that it has compiled in order to attract advertisers, application makers, and other business opportunities. Currently, Facebook, boasting a community of over 800 million people,  is valued at more than $100 billion on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The online advertising industry, fueled by the data collected by user’s online behavior and used to create customized ads, is valued at $28 billion, and in 2011 generated $20 billion. Zynga, the maker of popular apps such as Farmville and Cityville made $1.14 billion in 2011 (and it still wasn’t profitable!) The money at stake in the online advertising world is no small change.
Although Facebook requires apps to ask permission before accessing personal details, these apps do not provide notification if information about a user’s friends are used. Additionally, information that these applications gather through facebook are
sometimes stored in a new location for further use. This allows applications that are not approved by Facebook to access the information and also display advertisements that were not approved by Facebook. One example of this is how Google can now track users of applications.
An endless barrage of requests for information access has resulted in habituation- “a fundamental human tendency that occurs when people become accustomed to simply pressing the “yes” button when faced with an alert or warning.” The frequency of these warnings coupled with nothing bad happening in the average case means that people are less alarmed about sharing information.
Information is valuable though, and can be used in unexpected ways. One example articulates this point quite clearly:
An iPhone app called Girls Around Me used information from a location-based application called Foursquare to allow men to locate nearby women on a map and view their information from their Facebook profiles. Many were enraged because this application violated social norms against stalking women. Helen Nissenbaum, a NYU professor and author of the book “privacy in Context” says that this type of information sharing steps over a digital “fence” that in physicality would never be crossed.  In response to the uproar, the developer of the app responded taht the app “gives the user nothign more than the Foursquare app can provide itself.”
The White House is currently working on a blueprint for a Privacy Bill of Rights that would create guidelines for the use of personal data. These guidelines will call for more detailed explanation of how personal data will be used. Currently the US is lacking in legal comprehensive privacy protections.
Facebook’s privacy model is one of the more advanced of its day. It lists nearly every type of data sought and allows users to deny certain applications’ requests for data. However, smartphone applications that work independently from Facebook do not have to adhere to Facebook’s privacy policy once they are granted access to information.
“Facebook profiles are now set by default to let apps obtain all data from a user’s friends except sexual preference, religion and political views. That means, for instance, even if a user has set his or her birthday, location and “online status” messages to be private to friends, their friends can approve an app that will also obtain that information…about 40% didn’t understand that when an app  was allowed to get personal data, it could actually transfer that data out of Facebook and store it elsewhere.”
Children of the digital age have grown through various approaches towards public information. As a young child, I was instructed not to post information online about my full name, age, or hometown. Now, applications almost automatically post my GPS location and link to extended albums of my friends and family and provide information about what music, movies, and topics I am interested in. Personal information is valuable, but with increasing fluidity of personal information, people no longer have control over that information.
Personally, I doubt that this article will persuade me to disconnect from Facebook or from my iPhone. However, I think it is important to consider the implications of such generous information sharing. Whether coming from the standpoint of safety, privacy, or commercial interest, it is important to realize exactly what information you are providing to the global community and beyond.
A Further Readings:

2 responses to “Selling You on Facebook

  • rbain1

    Facebook is scandalous! It’s always interesting when a social network or any kind of seemingly harmless technology or network branches out in ways one wouldn’t expect, like providing personal information to target interests of the users and supply the information to and the opportunity of advertisers to target users based on such information. I always wondered why some of them were so prevalent, and also how they know my name. The internet is an amazing things, but just as scary. If this information is being diffused so effortlessly, who knows what else will be easily accessible for advertisers and other web surfers in the coming years. What will become of cyber security? What will be the effect? Will the government get involved? And would it pose a threat to the right to privacy? Would it be worth it for an individual for the government to get involved in further protecting one’s information and identity?

  • paigewolff

    Great post. I think it’s particularly alarming that applications my friends use can obtain *my* information that was explicitly intended exclusively for people I know. Why would Facebook slam the breaks on apps obtaining one’s sexual preference and political affiliation but not location or birthday?! Which is more revealing: “Homosexual; Republican” or “Great Neck, NY; November 23, 1988”?!!

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